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Stockton Gets Ready to Experiment With Universal Basic Income

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Stockton is giving some residents a monthly income of $500, no strings attached.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Wage stagnation. Rising housing prices. Loss of middle-class jobs. The looming threat of automation. These are some of the problems facing Stockton and its residents, but the city's mayor, Michael Tubbs, says his city is far from unique.

“I think Stockton is absolutely ground zero for a lot of the issues we are facing as a nation,” Tubbs said.

Stockton is one of many Bay Area cities on the fringe of the wealth accumulating in Silicon Valley and San Francisco. The Central Valley city went bankrupt in 2012, and for decades it has been trying to diversify its agriculture-based economy.

“I feel that as mayor it’s my responsibility to do all I could to begin figuring out what's the best way to make sure that folks in our community have a real economic floor,” Tubbs said.

Tubbs is coordinating an effort to test a new way to sustain residents: universal basic income, or UBI. For one year, several dozen Stockton families will get $500 a month, no strings attached.

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Dorian Warren co-chairs the Economic Security Project, which is contributing $1 million to the initiative. He said the goal is to gather data on the economic and social impacts of giving people a basic income.

In addition to tracking what residents do with the money, Warren said they will be monitoring how a basic income affects things like self-esteem and identity.

“What does it mean to say, ‘Here is unconditional guaranteed income just based on you being a human being?’ ” Warren asked.

The hope is to demonstrate UBI’s potential and encourage other places to give it a try. UBI has recently gotten a boost from Silicon Valley moguls concerned about income inequality and the future of society, but the idea isn’t actually all that new, said Michelle Anderson, a Stanford law professor.

Anderson said, “UBI was first pitched by Nixon as an answer to post-industrial job losses.”

With this experiment, Anderson said Stockton may discover it gets more economic stimulus by giving money to its citizens rather than corporations it hopes will bring in jobs and tax revenue.

“The UBI that is being proposed in Stockton now is very small compared to the big corporate subsidies that cities like that engage in,” Anderson said.

Stockton racked up millions in debt on development projects in the past, which got the city into trouble, Mayor Tubbs said.

“We’ve overspent on things like arenas and marinas and things of that sort to try to lure in tourism and dollars that way,” he said.

Tubbs thinks the UBI experiment will show that Stockton’s best bet is to invest in its own people.

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