Soon after Michael Tubbs became the mayor of Stockton, California, at the age of 26—the youngest of a city of over 100,000 and Stockton’s first African-American mayor—he directed his policy fellows to research ways to reduce poverty. Four years earlier, in 2012, the city had declared bankruptcy, and it was still mired in high unemployment and crime. The team came back to report that one way to end poverty was to give people money. This solution had a name, “universal basic income” (UBI), and a long history in America as a social-policy idea. It had been embraced by Thomas Paine and Milton Friedman and made a cornerstone of the Poor People’s Campaign advanced by Martin Luther King Jr. Both Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter had proposed replacing welfare with a guaranteed income. More recently, the idea was revived by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, who saw it as a remedy for the burgeoning “useless class”—all those people whose jobs technology is making obsolete. So far, no American city had ever tried it.
¶ Tubbs was skeptical, but the following May he attended a conference on the future of work, where he sat next to the economist and developer Natalie Foster. Along with Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, Foster had launched an advocacy group dedicated to advancing the conversation about guaranteed income. She told Tubbs they were looking for a test city, and he suggested Stockton might be the perfect place.