In the summer of 2017, Tomas Vargas Jr. had a wife and two young children at home in Stockton, Calif., and a teenage son he hadn’t seen in a decade. He had a $31,000-a-year position at UPS, side jobs repairing cars and carrying groceries, friends killed by gunfire, and night terrors. He was 33 years old. “In the morning, I would look dead in the mirror and tell myself, ‘I know you hate it. I know you don’t want to keep going. But what gives you the right to just be a piece of shit like that?’ And after I looked at myself deeply in my eyes, I’d sit there and tell myself, ‘Wash your face and get started and try.’ ”
One day that autumn, Vargas heard Michael Tubbs, the new mayor of Stockton, on television talking about giving away cash to his constituents, nearly a quarter of whom live below the poverty line. Vargas just laughed. Another year of work and dread followed. Then a postcard arrived in the mail, one of 4,200 sent to randomly selected residents of neighborhoods with a median annual income below the city’s figure of $46,000. It included a request to complete an online survey of 100 questions covering such things as stress levels and the use of check-cashing services. Vargas answered them all. In January 2019 he was informed that he was one of about 125 people randomly chosen to receive a guaranteed income of $500 a month for 18 months. He’d be part of the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration.
Vargas figured it had to be a con. But he went down to the SEED office near city hall, where Sukhi Samra, the program’s director, assured him it wasn’t. He would receive the money on a SEED debit card and could spend it however he chose. Researchers would record everyone’s anonymized expenditures, which would then be published on the program’s website for anyone to see. A control group of 200 people were also being studied, receiving small payments in exchange for answering questions about their financial wellbeing. “Damn, it’s a pretty good scam if it is,” Vargas thought. He signed up, and in mid-February $500 appeared on the debit card he’d received, as promised.
The idea of the government giving people money directly has been cycling in and out of favor in America for more than 200 years. It’s the essence of Social Security and the annual dividend paid to Alaska residents, and it was gaining adherents again in 2016 when Stockton elected Tubbs as its first Black mayor. He was 26, born on the city’s south side to a teenage mother and an incarcerated father, and educated at Stanford. A cousin’s murder had drawn him back home. He’d served a term on the city council before winning 71% of the mayoral vote. One of his priorities was finding ways to alleviate Stockton’s deep poverty and economic inequality, which saw White families earn twice as much as Black families on average.
That same year, Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook Inc., had helped start an organization called the Economic Security Project. Among its policy prescriptions is a guaranteed basic income, driven by the belief that today’s economy is fundamentally unjust and frequently precarious. A guaranteed income wouldn’t have to be enough to live on. It wouldn’t fix every problem. But it could, the group hoped, make recipients less vulnerable. They were looking for a community to try out the concept and show that people could be trusted to spend money that came without restrictions.
By 2019 there was funding for the pilot, there were researchers and recipients, there were even three murals in downtown Stockton inspired by the idea. This year, the coronavirus pandemic brought hardship on a scale that both tested the experiment’s limits and made it more urgent.
As a candidate to be the first U.S. city in a generation to experiment with a basic income, Stockton made a lot of sense. A modestly sized metropolis of some 300,000, situated along the San Joaquin River in California’s Central Valley, it was founded during the gold rush, named after a commodore, and long ago became one of the country’s most diverse cities. But diversity hasn’t meant equality. The Crosstown Freeway divides the largely White and more prosperous north from the predominantly Hispanic, Asian, and Black south, where redlining, underinvestment, and aggressive policing have caused lasting harm. Life expectancy to the south is eight years lower, and the temperature is three degrees hotter. In 2007 no urban center had a higher rate of foreclosures than Stockton; five years later it became the first major U.S. city to declare bankruptcy.
When Tubbs took office, Stockton’s finances were still constrained. Its poverty rate was twice the national average. At the time, labor experts, Silicon Valley executives, and soonto-be presidential candidate Andrew Yang were pushing universal basic income as a way to address the expected job loss from increased automation. Tubbs came at it from a different angle. “I didn’t learn this from the tech bros,” he says. He knew that Martin Luther King Jr. had advocated for some form of basic income in the last year of his life. “In a country with so much, where JeffBezos can make $13 billion a day, 35 million people shouldn’t be hungry. That seems like such a noncontroversial take.”
Tubbs is speaking from his second-floor office at City Hall. Painted on the walls are Isaiah 1:17 (“Learn to do right; seek justice”) and a lyric from the rapper J. Cole (“Dream like you never seen obstacles”). Tubbs is sporting a blue mask flecked with white polka dots. He’s got an hour.
In 2017, during his first months as mayor, Tubbs met Natalie Foster, co-chair of the Economic Security Project, at a tech conference in San Francisco. When he learned she was seeking a city for a basic income pilot, he pitched Stockton. Foster was intrigued, but Hughes had to be convinced, and so did other potential funders. “It was, ‘I’ve never heard of Stockton. He’s only been mayor for a year. There’s a bunch of mayors and a bunch of cities with a lot more cachet,’ ” Tubbs says.
Continue reading your story on the app
Continue reading your story in the magazine
The Decline of a Great American Tech Company
How Intel lost its way
Gaming the Gig Economy
A group of DoorDash workers are trying to set a minimum rate for deliveries
Asian Americans Are Ready for a Hero
After going from “model minority” to invisible minority to hunted minority, the community needs a new generation of cultural and political leaders
How Toyota Dodged The Chip Shortage
As rivals shutter plants, the automaker’s close monitoring of its supply chain gives it an edge
A plan to renovate public links in the U.S. capital aims to bring golf back to the community
Temporarily changing a car’s appearance is becoming a lasting passion among collectors.
WON'T YOU BE HIS NEIGHBOR?
Mayor Francis Suarez goes on a charm offensive to lure techies—and Elon Musk—to Miami
Austin, Reluctant Boomtown
Residents fear that the wave of tech workers arriving will turn the city into San Francisco
Your Facebook Friend Has Some Thoughts To Share About Your Covid Vaccine
Mark Zuckerberg wanted to make Facebook a source of reliable information about the pandemic. Instead he created a perfect platform for conspiracy theorists
A Squeeze on the Global Middle Class
An estimated 150 million people slipped down the economic ladder in 2020, the first setback in almost three decades
SICKO NABBED IN RAPE OF DEMENTIA GAL, 92!
A DEMENTIA-stricken senior was raped in her California home by a creep who was caught in the act of attacking the 92-year-old, police say.
Fantastic singer, an infectious and captivating performer, and an inspiring and prolific songwriter.
DREAM DECADE HAS FLOWN BY
IT’S A WHOLE ten years since Matt Tubbs helped fi re Crawley Town into the Football League for the first time in their history – but, for the free-scoring striker, it feels just like yesterday.
La “Guía ética” Los filósofos apuntan: debe corregirse
Pensado para su análisis y discusión, el documento impulsado por López Obrador y presentado por él este noviembre está incompleto, de acuerdo con los miembros del Observatorio Filosófico de México, y no fue objeto de consulta alguna, como se prometió. Les parece que no ofrece explicaciones filosóficas, cae en el subjetivismo y se confronta con el principio laicista; además uno de sus fundadores, Gabriel Vargas Lozano, escribió al presidente una carta, que no ha recibido respuesta, en la que explica que la guía no distingue ética de moral, como lo explica en entrevista.
HOT COLE FIRED UP TO SHOCK
Shrimps punch above weight
VARGAS VALDEZ Un nombramiento que divide al TEPJF
El nuevo presidente del TEPJF, José Luis Vargas Valdez, tiene más de 20 años de experiencia electoral, pero arrastra una cauda de caprichos, desatinos y una irrefrenable pasión por los viajes. Su polémico nombramiento por un solo voto de diferencia provocó ya una división en el seno del tribunal, donde algunos magistrados critican la forma en que resuelve los diferendos. Consultados al respecto, Javier Martín Reyes y Eduardo Huchim, dos especialistas en el tema, advierten sobre los riesgos que implica tenerlo al frente de la máxima instancia electoral del país.
Room to grow
For the past 25 years, Debbie Hawkes and her husband Nick have carefully reshaped and reworked their home to keep pace with their growing family
BRITISH RACING'S FINANCIAL BLACK HOLE
As historic British races fall off the domestic calendar at an alarming rate, Chris Marshall-Bell sets out to find out why races are struggling and what can be done to fix it
Aflora más podredumbre
El miércoles 19 la secretaria de la Función Pública, Irma Eréndira Sandoval, confirmó lo que Proceso ha revelado desde el pasado junio: en la Comisión Nacional de Cultura Física y Deporte, a cargo de Ana Guevara, opera una red que abusa del erario vía empresas que son utilizadas para desviar recursos y cobrar a sobreprecio los viajes a campamentos y competencias. La propietaria de una de esas compañías ya denunció a la Conade y se acercó a este semanario para contar su historia.
24 Hours In Stockton Heath
Should it not be separated from sprawling Warrington by the Manchester Ship Canal, Stockton Heath may well be in danger of being reduced to little more than a desirable suburb.