Guaranteed income is having a moment. It’s not for the first time: Thomas Paine proposed it as far back as 1797. Martin Luther King, Jr. viewed it as a “balm” for many of society’s ills. “It’s an idea as old as the country itself,” says Michael Tubbs, the former mayor of Stockton, California, who may be responsible for bringing it back into fashion, more enduringly, to help achieve economic, and racial, justice. Over two years as mayor, Tubbs spearheaded a program that sent a supplemental income of $500 a month—no questions asked, no strings attached—to 125 Stockton residents living below the city’s median wage of $46,000.
The data from Stockton’s program—The Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, or SEED—has been persuasive. For people who received the funds, income volatility declined, and full-time employment rose from 28% to 40%, double the rate among those in a control group. More people reported being more productive, fewer reported feelings of anxiety and depression, and it generally created “new opportunities for self-determination, choice, goal-setting, and risk-taking.” It may also to help shatter the typical “false tropes” against GI: beneficiaries spent less than 1% on alcohol and tobacco; the rest on food, utilities, gas, and easing debts.
As financial instability rose during the pandemic, Tubbs (who lost a re-election campaign in 2020) founded Mayors For a Guaranteed Income, the winner of the politics and policy category of Fast Company’s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards. The group now counts 43 fellow mayors aligned with the concept as members, and provides them with guidelines on pilot design and best practices, and also supplies research support in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania School of Policy and Practice, which helped conduct the original SEED study. Most crucially, it advises cities on how to secure funding—and issued $500,000 per city to its original members, divvied up from the $18 million donated to the group last year by Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey.
The other mayors (all Democrats. “I am working feverishly on getting a couple Republican mayors,” Tubbs says.) are starting to launch their own pilots, with their own unique designs. Compton’s includes undocumented immigrants among recipients; Columbia, South Carolina’s will send checks exclusively to Black fathers, and Gainesville, Florida’s to people who were formerly incarcerated . Tubbs emphasizes that the extra income is additive to any social security benefits people may receive, not a replacement. “If we are going to look for cuts to government programs,” he says, “those cuts come from programs that benefit the wealthy, and not those who don’t have other resources.”
No matter how successful the various pilots prove, mayors still have to balance their budgets. Absent any outside assistance, mayors can’t afford to expand these programs citywide. Pilots will remain pilots. So, the mayors are thinking big: GI on a federal level. Tubbs thinks they have the momentum. Andrew Yang spread the basic income gospel to the national stage, and COVID-19 stimulus checks have kept the idea in the public eye. The mayors simply want those cash transfers in the mail to continue after the pandemic ends. That doesn’t seem far-fetched to Tubbs, given the progress from four years ago—”when, literally, it was just me.”