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Guaranteed income is graduating from charity to public policy

American cities are finally taking the safety net seriously.

Michael Tubbs, the former mayor of Stockton, California, is a leading advocate for guaranteed income.
Nick Otto/AFP via Getty Images

It seems like everywhere you look in the US these days, new guaranteed income pilot programs are springing up. Over the past month or so, they’ve launched in Newark, New Jersey; Tacoma, Washington; Denver, Colorado; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Los Angeles County, California.

“Guaranteed income” is similar to, but not quite the same as, universal basic income (UBI). Whereas UBI aims to offer enough money for a basic subsistence living to every single adult, guaranteed income might provide a more modest amount — less than enough to live on — to a more targeted group of people (say, the lowest-income people in the population). It can still be life-changing for those who receive it.

So it was a big deal when California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on May 14 that he’s including $35 million in his state budget to help pay for local governments to launch their own guaranteed income pilots targeting low-income families. (Individual cities or counties are expected to supplement the funding for the pilots through taxpayer dollars or private donations.)

That announcement was dubbed “monumental” by Michael Tubbs, the former mayor of Stockton, California, who spearheaded a successful 2017 pilot program there offering $500 to some residents with no strings attached, and who last year created the organization Mayors for a Guaranteed Income. In an emailed statement, Tubbs said Californa’s investment marks “the largest commitment of recurring cash in a state budget — and the first time a state has ever supported guaranteed income pilot funding.”

I called Tubbs to talk about why this is a major inflection point in the movement for guaranteed income and how the idea of giving people “free money” is graduating from Silicon Valley-funded charity trials to government policy. Direct cash payments have gained popularity as a policy tool during the pandemic — and for good reason: As a new analysis of Census Bureau surveys shows, Americans experienced dramatic declines in food shortages, financial instability, and anxiety after receiving stimulus checks. Such findings can help build broad support for a guaranteed income.

A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sigal Samuel

Do you have the sense that the idea of “free money” is growing up?

Michael Tubbs

Yes. I remember when we announced Stockton’s pilot in 2017, everyone looked at me like I was crazy. But I think we’ve seen, particularly in the last year where our main response to the pandemic was cash — from stimulus checks to unemployment insurance to child tax credits — that that was literally how we made it through the Covid-19 pandemic. So I think it’s absolutely become more mainstream.

Now you have 53 mayors across this country who are saying they’re supportive of a guaranteed income. In 2017, there was one.

Sigal Samuel

Funding for these pilots used to come mainly from Silicon Valley technologists and their foundations. I’m thinking of charitable giving from people like Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey or Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. Now with California’s announcement, funding is starting to come from states, too — so “free money” is moving from the realm of charity into the realm of policy. Is that a big milestone?

Michael Tubbs

Absolutely! When we started the pilot in Stockton, I said it’s not going to be sustainable with philanthropic dollars, with kindness dollars. At some point it’s going to have to come from all of us, from tax dollars. And maybe we should have a conversation about our tax code, so those who are able to give money can give, but through the tax system.

Now having state-infused dollars saying it’s important for the government to study this — it gets us one step closer to a policy.

Sigal Samuel

So what do you think should now be the role for the Silicon Valley tech bro megadonors? Do you want them to remain invested and interested in donating to this cause but not be the main funders anymore?

Michael Tubbs

No, I’m different than a lot of people. To me, it’s how you use the money. I think it’s great and I’ve been so blessed to have the support of folks like Jack Dorsey and Chris Hughes. I think they’ve been good models. Chris has set up a whole organization [the Economic Security Project] around advocacy and research and policy — like, how do you make this a policy? Jack has supported the research and advocacy efforts.

I think it’s all about figuring out how do we move from pilot to policy. And when the conversation comes about how do we raise revenue — having these same folks also lead [the conversation] about the ways we should increase revenue, which may include increasing their taxes slightly, and asking them to own that and say, “Yes, this is important.”

I think it’s one thing for me with no money to talk about “yes, we should increase the marginal tax rate; yes, we should look at the capital gains tax; yes, we should look at everything at our disposal to pay for this” — and it’s another thing for someone who’d actually be impacted by that to lead on that. For me, that would be a great sign of leadership.

Sigal Samuel

When thinking about universal basic income versus guaranteed income, do you see one as more ideal than the other? In your mind, is the ultimate goal to end up with UBI as federal policy, but you’re just starting with guaranteed income because it’s easier to sell people on?

Michael Tubbs

My whole focus is I am committed to getting rid of poverty. Getting a guaranteed income is something that seems much more politically feasible in this moment, and it helps me achieve my objective.

I will say, though, that with automation and the way work will change, at some point this country will have to reckon with the idea of a universal basic income. UBI makes sense, and it’s going to make even more sense as we see automation [causing job] displacement. But guaranteed income makes a lot of sense today. I want to make sure we get to those who absolutely need it today and then we build to a point where we get it to everyone.

I think a guaranteed income puts us in a better position to implement a universal basic income.

Sigal Samuel

So you see it as a stepping stone?

Michael Tubbs

Yes, I see it as a stepping stone. But in terms of my main objective, it is the stone.

Sigal Samuel

UBI has typically been framed as a response to automation-induced joblessness, but guaranteed income is framed these days more as a way to address economic and racial inequality. How did that framing come about?

Michael Tubbs

Mayors for a Guaranteed Income was created as a response to the murder of George Floyd. A year ago when George Floyd was murdered, I was still mayor and I was talking to some of my mayor friends about how Dr. [Martin Luther] King called for a guaranteed income in 1967, which was another time of racial unrest in this country. He looked at the protests, at the uprisings, and he talked about a guaranteed income. I told them [the mayors], this is what we’re called to do in this moment. We can respond to the demands of our constituents, which aren’t just about police brutality but also about the violence of poverty, about structural violence.

We know that financial insecurity is a widespread issue in this country, but it’s acutely an issue in communities of color. We saw the ways in which Covid-19 exacerbated and showed how all our systems have failed people of color. That’s why we started Mayors for a Guaranteed Income ... because guaranteed income is also about building economic resilience. So when pandemics happen, when calamity happens, people are in a better position to pivot.

Sigal Samuel

Do you view Biden’s child tax credit, which makes money available to all parents as a monthly check (though only for the duration of the pandemic crisis), as a form of guaranteed income?

Michael Tubbs

Absolutely. That is a big, big deal. It’s a guaranteed income for families with children. It’s amazing. And it needs to be permanent — that’s the first fight that we all should be focused on.

Sigal Samuel

And how bullish does it make you about the prospects of guaranteed income becoming federal policy in the near future? Is that realistic?

Michael Tubbs

It’s already federal policy for a year — we just have to make it permanent! And Sen. [Cory] Booker, Sen. Sherrod Brown, and others are really fighting to make this child tax credit permanent.

And there are bills in Congress talking about guaranteed income. Then-senator, now-VP [Kamala] Harris had her LIFT Act — $500 a month every month to every family making $100,000 or less — which is a form of guaranteed income [though one where recipients must be working to benefit]. And Rep. [Bonnie] Watson Coleman, Rep. [Ilhan] Omar, and others have put forward guaranteed income bills.

So I do think it’s realistic. Not only realistic — it’s a necessity. This could be our generation’s Social Security.