Stockton Mayor Tubbs: How Residents Are Using 'Guaranteed Income' During the Pandemic

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Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs implemented an 18 month trial of Universal Basic Income randomly-selected residents of his city. (Nick Otto/Getty Images)

In early 2019, the city of Stockton began an experiment with guaranteed income by giving 125 randomly selected individuals $500 a month with no strings attached. Mayor Michael Tubbs helped spearhead this trial.

KQED's Lily Jamali spoke with Tubbs about new data that shows how people are spending the money during the COVID-19 pandemic. He also revealed that the pandemic has prompted his team to work on extending the experiment, which is supposed to end this summer.

This interview has been edited for brevity.

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KQED's Lily Jamali: I'm very interested in new data that Stockton has access to on how people in that experiment are spending the money during COVID-19. What have you learned?

Mayor Michael Tubbs: We have learned that, again, just like you were doing before, a lot of folks are spending money on real necessities. So we found that during the COVID time, food spending went up, from about a third of all purchases to up to 50%. Spending declined on things like appliances and clothing, etcetera. Folks are really hunkering down and making sure they have the basics to shelter in place.

What else has struck you about this data?

I think the biggest question that arises from the data [is] if these 120 individuals who were randomly selected, during this pandemic, what would they be doing if they didn't have that $500? How would they have food? Where would they get food from? That causes me to ask about the 300,000-plus other people in my city, and we're doing everything we can to make sure that folks have access to food in a way that's affordable or free.

The experiment is set to sunset in the next couple of months. Has there been talk about extending it out further, given what's going on with the pandemic?

Absolutely. We've been talking to a couple of folks about extending it further. And hopefully, in the next couple of weeks, we'll have an announcement on that. And we're working overtime to make that happen.

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The first time we talked about guaranteed income in Stockton was March of 2019. You've had a lot of time to absorb the results of this experiment, in addition to being really pivotal in spearheading it. It's been striking to see people like Sen. Kamala Harris advocating for a very similar structure during the pandemic. She's calling now for $2,000 a month to go to every American while this goes on. She's a moderate Democrat. Are you surprised to see people like her pushing this idea?

Well, actually, no. What's interesting about this concept is that it actually has bipartisan support. You have folks like Sen. Romney and others talking about direct cash assistance to folks in this pandemic. There will be a prolonged economic crisis after COVID-19, particularly for the groups who are oftentimes most impacted by downturns in the economy: people of color, women of color, etcetera. So I would argue that $2,000 a month during a pandemic is a great step, but it's time to really think about a social safety net and understand that we live in a time of pandemics. If it's not an illness, there's an earthquake. If it's not an earthquake, there's a fire. These happen yearly, so we need to make sure that folks have the tools they need to build a great foundation. I feel a guaranteed income is an important part of that solution.