Stockton, California, is not a city known for setting its residents up for success. Nearly 1 in every 4 residents lives in poverty. For years, it hovered at the top of national homicide rate rankings. In 2012, it became the largest city to declare bankruptcy.
Michael Tubbs knows this firsthand. The 28-year-old, who is now the mayor, grew up in poverty in Stockton, and nine years ago his cousin was murdered at a Halloween party in his community. When he left Stockton for college at Stanford in 2008, he knew he was an anomaly. “More men in my family have been incarcerated than gone to college,” he said on the stage at TED in Vancouver. Stockton signed its bankruptcy declaration as Tubbs was preparing to graduate from college, and he made the decision to come back and run for city council to try to change some of the stressors that he experienced throughout his childhood.
That decision, in itself, was radical, and not just because of his age at the time, Tubbs said. “Historically, Stockton has been a place that people run from, rather than come back to,” he said. And for he and so many other residents of Stockton, the government “was not something we had warm feelings for,” he said. Government, after all, was what red-lined diverse communities like Stockton to limit opportunities for people of color; government and politicians advanced policies like the war on drugs that led to high rates of incarceration in communities like his own; government developed school funding formulas that disinvested in public educational institutions in places like Stockton.
But what Tubbs realized was that “these structures we inherit are not acts of God–they’re acts of men and women.” Our society, he added, was designed to produce outcomes that disadvantage some people and advantage others, and Stockton was on the receiving end of the former. “We should not be surprised to see that kids in poverty don’t do well in school, we should not be surprised to see income gaps by race and by gender, because that’s what our society is designed to do,” Tubbs said. But if decades of political actors could design and implement the cultural and societal structures that trap places like Stockton, those systems could be redesigned and restructured, he thought. Perhaps he could help.
After four years in the city council, though, Tubbs grew frustrated with the lack of progress on Stockton’s pervasive issues. He was able to advance some projects, like working with a conservative member of the council to open a free health clinic for undocumented people in the city. “Being a part-time councilman was not enough to enact the structural changes we needed to see in Stockton,” Tubbs said. His council district was 10 minutes away from a more affluent neighborhood, where the life expectancy was 10 years longer, the unemployment rate was 30% lower, and there was a $75,000 difference in income. Looking at this data was what motivated him to run for mayor in order to enact policies that unite disparate neighborhoods under policies that benefit people across Stockton.
One of Tubbs’s first acts as mayor, after he was elected in 2016, was to address the issue of violent crime in the city–something that often originates in lower-income districts and affects the whole of Stockton. He launched a program called Advance Peace, which provides people convicted with violent crimes with mentorship and stipends to access help. “We give people as much attention and love from social services, opportunities, and funding as we do to law enforcement, and last year, we saw a 40% reduction in homicides and a 30% reduction in violent crime,” Tubbs said.
And around the issue of poverty, Tubbs is doing something truly revolutionary. In February, he oversaw the launch of a basic income pilot program across the city. Over the course of 18 months, 125 families that live in zip codes where the average income is at or below the poverty line will receive monthly stipends of $500 per month. “Something is structurally wrong in America if people’s wages have only increased 6% between 1979 and 2013, and if people working two and three jobs still can’t pay for necessities like rent and healthcare,” Tubbs says.
To Tubbs, programs like basic income and supporting instead of punishing people who commit violent crimes are a way to directly counter the issues of poverty, violence, racial disparity, and so many more that structural political decisions have created. Instead of viewing these systems as natural and inevitable, Tubbs wants to undo them, and built new pathways for people. “We’re calling into question the very structures that create poverty in the first place,” he said.