Featured portraits of SEED storytelling recipients. Images taken by Snap Jackson.

Guaranteed Income for Economic Empowerment: A Q&A with Mayor Michael Tubbs

Reflections on why “this is the moment” to test guaranteed income and what the City of Stockton is learning from its pilot

To kick off WWC’s latest Sprint offering — Testing Guaranteed Income as an Innovative Solution to Economic Instability — Stockton, CA Mayor Michael Tubbs joined What Works Cities’ Executive Director Simone Brody and 20 cities from across the country for a candid conversation about Stockton’s guaranteed income pilot program, Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED). Launched in 2019, SEED is the first ever mayor-led guaranteed income program in the U.S.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. To view a recording of the entire first session, click here.

Simone Brody: What led you to bring a guaranteed income program to Stockton?

Mayor Michael Tubbs: The premise to get to “what works” was identifying what wasn’t working for me and what wasn’t working for the community. And the biggest thing for me was persistent, endemic poverty and economic insecurity in our city. I spent four years on city council before my first year as Mayor in 2017 and had been representing the South side of the city. I saw poverty come up time after time. We were trying to solve issues around education and housing, which are important, but at the end of the day, I said, “What are we going to do about poverty as well?”

So, my team researched. I wanted to find an intervention that deals with poverty, understanding that there would be risk involved, but also rationalizing that the biggest risk, at least for Stockton, was for nothing to change. There are folks who continue to work two jobs and not be able to pay rent, folks who continue to not be compensated for the labor they do at home, folks who continue to be forced to work without dignity.

With all that’s happening in the world right now, can you talk about why this is a critical moment to push the national conversation on guaranteed income forward?

This is the moment. I can’t imagine what else it would take for folks to realize that we have to have serious interventions around how our economy works. If you look at COVID-19, you have folks who are told to shelter in place and stay at home, but don’t have paid time off. People are taking two weeks out of their paycheck, but their bills aren’t taking two weeks off. You have folks who are told not to come to work with symptoms, but are fearful of being evicted. You have women and essential workers, mostly women of color, who are putting their health on the line, and then have to stand in food bank lines afterwards, because they can’t pay for food. An economic floor or a guaranteed income is a part of pandemic resilience and part of a national emergency response.

Mural in Stockton, CA. Image courtesy of The Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED)’s blog post.

Then you marry that with this reckoning we’re having on race in this country. Folks are protesting not just the violence of white supremacy and police violence, but really the violence of poverty, the violence of lack of opportunity. We were inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call in 1967. Dr. King talked about how he believed, based on his work, a guaranteed income has to be part of the United States’ social safety net. Dr. King looked out and saw that economic justice is racial justice and racial justice is economic justice, and any response to the unrest in the streets has to be economic as well.

It’s a perfect storm that highlights all the vulnerabilities of our economy and the ways we have to shore it up so it works. It’s caused us to reflect on what kind of country we want to live in. How are we better off with more people worse off? What can we do to provide a baseline level of economic security to all of our constituents?

For me and all the mayors feeling the fierce urgency of now, we’re understanding that we have a unique opportunity to build something better. It’s a mandate because if you can’t build something better now, then why lead? This is the time to do something not just for a subgroup of our population, but for the majority of our constituents that don’t have savings and are working incredibly hard. They’re saying, “Hey, give me a baseline. Give me a little bit of security. Give me the ability to take risks, the ability to build economic resilience.”

Ultimately it seems like the value is thinking about guaranteed income at the national level. Things are more partisan than ever. Can you talk about how this could be a nonpartisan solution, and why that is needed if we are going to think about this at the national scale?

Piloting has a powerful role in allowing us to test “scary” ideas, figure out what works, and what doesn’t work. We know what works on a variety of issues; the question is, “How do we get what works to scale?” The issue is about messaging — how you overcome that political inertia.

And what we’re trying to do is connect these pilots to policy. Part of the point of these pilots is to provide the narratives, the stories, the expertise, the real examples to give our national lawmakers the courage to do what is necessary during this time, but also to give them reference points and give them the ability to see it’s not only theoretical, but it’s something that’s happening here on the ground. Even if I think a solution like guaranteed income should be scaled nationally, local leadership is critical. This is where mayors can lead, we’re the ones living among and working side by side with our constituents.

Let’s shift to talk about how you’re making this happen. Can you talk about the coalition and relationship building you’ve done in Stockton that’s helped advance this work?

Coalition building is always important. We spent a year designing with our research partners, Economic Security Project, and with community members. We had an advisory group of community members, some who were supportive of the idea and some who were opposed. We did a full community engagement strategy that really engaged the community in designing and helped us decide who got the intervention, what the qualifications were, and helped us decide what to measure, as well as built community buy-in.

Once we piloted, we continued to engage stakeholders and the community. Also, the role of the Mayor is important in setting the tone and making the terms of engagement very clear, especially when you’re doing something a little bit different. There’s going to be backlash and that should be expected. But the Mayor can’t cower and can’t shy away. The Mayor should really lean in, particularly in this moment and say, “Look, we’re testing the idea. We know what doesn’t work — the economic insecurity we’re seeing in our city. Because of that, all options are on the table, and this is an idea we will test.” It really takes the Mayor to own it, and say, “We’re going to figure out what works on this issue.”

Mayor Michael Tubbs champions the value and importance of community engagement. Image courtesy of CNN Business.

I think the best thing for me was actually sitting in some of those community engagement sessions, and hearing from residents I had not met before about how they would use $500 and what it would mean for them. It gave me the courage and the energy to really champion this. People would say amazing things I had not thought of. You realize, “I’m not that smart. I can’t think for 300,000 people, but our residents will know how to use this money.”

I remember one woman telling me that $500 will really matter in the summer. She shared how her kids come back for the summer and she doesn’t tell them they’re straining her financially because she wants them home, but it’s a challenge. She has to buy more food or utilities go up, activities go up — and her income doesn’t. She always gets a little bit of anxiety during the summer because of that.

When I heard her story, I thought, how could we design a program that would meet this and the diverse needs of my constituents? That’s why the mayor sitting in and listening and truly engaging with the community is so important, even if you’re a mayor like me who comes from poverty.

Any other ways in which you used community voices, not just to understand the need, but to actually design how you were delivering the program?

I started my work as a council member doing collective impact work in the South part of the city, so at first I thought we should give all the money to the folks there, thinking this will make the other work happening there go further and we’ll see better results on everything. But then I talked to the community, and even in South Stockton, the people said “no very adamantly. They said it was important for them, and for the community as a whole, that as many people could qualify as possible, understanding we couldn’t get to everyone. In some communities, it may not be as high a priority; other communities may want it to go to the people with the most need or another particular group. But in Stockton in 2017, we wanted everyone to feel like if they can qualify, they could benefit.

Mayor Michael Tubbs with residents and community partners. Image courtesy of SEED’s blog.

The benefits counseling we did was also incredibly important. We had Human Services agency workers sit down with about 20 people whose joining the program would actually impact their existing government benefits. So doing the necessary work of not causing harm and sitting experts down with people to help them make the right decision about whether opting in this program was working for them or not was wise on our part.

The other thing in terms of program design was keeping a dialogue going with recipients after the program launch about how things were going. Our storytelling cohort, whose job is to tell people how they’re using the money, has been really helpful in giving us the anecdotes needed to make the case, especially because we’re not part of the research design.

Can you share a story from a recipient of the program and how this makes you know you’re moving in the right direction?

One gentleman named Tomás talked about how in the first couple of months of the program, the $500 was enough for him to take time off and interview. He had a wife and two kids, worked in an hourly job before, living paycheck to paycheck. Taking a day off work was tantamount to losing a hundred plus dollars, and he couldn’t afford to do that. He told me, “But the basic income allowed me to actually take a risk on myself and take two days off of work to interview.” And he got a better job with better hours and better benefits. That was incredible because I’ve neglected to think about the people who work hourly, without paid time off, and don’t have the benefit of leaving to go to doctor appointments when your kids are sick.

Another story is from a young lady named Zohna who talked about the $500 being a literal lifeline during COVID-19. She was laid off from her job, and she’s been waiting for unemployment insurance and hasn’t got it yet, but she had the $500. She shared how she had COVID. And because of that, while spending two weeks in intense quarantine and feeling terrible, she didn’t have the added stress of worrying about the money she wasn’t making. Because even though the $500 didn’t cover all her bills, it was something while she got through this crisis.

[For more stories, you can listen to the conversation in full.]

Is there anything you learned, either something you did well or something that you all didn’t do as well, that cities that are embarking on a similar track should consider?

One thing I wish we had done better was having a communication plan in place before we launched. We did not anticipate the level of confusion and also the level of vitriol that the idea would attract. So even now, four years later, we’re explaining how people are selected, where the money comes from, and more. I think part of it was doing so many programs at once. We had a guaranteed income program (SEED), our program for gun violence that included cash stipends, and our scholarship program that gave $500 to college students, so folks were mixing them all up and thinking they’re all the same thing.

We know it’s in early stages, but we’d love to hear what the impact is so far. What does the data tell us to help build the evidence-base for guaranteed income as a tool for economic mobility?

Our data dashboard is a great resource for specifics. Our researchers are studying three main things:

1) how the money is spent;

2) what impact does this have on income volatility? And how does it allow people to be able to negotiate a world where finances and circumstances are so dynamic; and

3) impacts on health and health indicators.

We found that a majority of the money is spent on food, maintenance and utilities. What the researchers are also finding preliminarily, and to no surprise, is that people [receiving the guaranteed income] are less stressed and less anxious. They’re healthier, they’re spending more time with their families, their blood pressure’s down, their cortisol levels are down.

Our research is continuing because we’re able to extend the program to January 2021 to learn more about guaranteed income in terms of pandemic response. I haven’t heard the preliminary findings from that yet, but we know folks are reporting that they’re able to comply with public health orders because they’re not worried that spending two weeks at home quarantining is going to force them into bankruptcy, or force them into default, or force them into eviction.

Any final words of wisdom, Mayor?

Be strong and of good courage. You could spend three years thinking and white[board] charting, but people need help now. So just do it — learn on the fly, launch, and iterate. And always remember to do no harm.

What Works Cities, a Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative launched in 2015, helps local governments across the country drive progress in their cities through the effective use of data and evidence to tackle pressing challenges that affect their communities.

Through its City Solutions work, What Works Cities partners with cities, community organizations, and other local and national organizations to accelerate the adoption of programs, policies, and practices that have previously demonstrated success in helping cities solve their most difficult challenges.

During the Testing Guaranteed Income as an Innovative Solution to Economic Instability six-session Sprint led by the Mayors for a Guaranteed Income and the Economic Security Project, cities will learn about the research behind and value of a guaranteed income, the national network of mayors engaged with implementing demonstrations and advocating for guaranteed income programs at the state and federal level, and the City of Stockton’s experiences in piloting the first mayor-led guaranteed income initiative under Mayor Michael Tubbs.

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Helping leading cities across the U.S. use data and evidence to improve results for their residents. Launched by @BloombergDotOrg in April 2015.