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Is “free money” a good idea? Michael Tubbs gave his two cents — and it paid off.

The former mayor is helping the guaranteed income movement go mainstream.

Sigal Samuel is a senior reporter for Vox’s Future Perfect and co-host of the Future Perfect podcast. She writes primarily about the future of consciousness, tracking advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience and their staggering ethical implications. Before joining Vox, Sigal was the religion editor at the Atlantic.

Back when he was the mayor of Stockton, California, Michael Tubbs spearheaded a 2017 pilot program offering $500 to some of the city’s poorer residents, no strings attached. The experiment was a huge success: People who got the cash secured full-time jobs at more than twice the rate of people in a control group, denting the arguments of critics who claim that handing out “free money” will disincentivize work.

Fast-forward five years, and “free money” is now a huge global movement — and in the US, Tubbs is its most visible leader.

In 2020, as the pandemic hit low-income Americans especially hard, Tubbs created Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, galvanizing mayors across America to start unconditional cash programs in their own cities. The timing couldn’t have been better.

“I remember when we announced Stockton’s pilot in 2017, everyone looked at me like I was crazy,” Tubbs told me. “But I think we’ve seen [that] 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.”

By 2021, it seemed like new programs were springing up everywhere you looked, from New Jersey to Colorado to California. In fact, that year California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he was including $35 million in his state budget to help pay for local governments to launch their own pilots, marking the first time a state had ever supported guaranteed income pilot funding.

Guaranteed income had graduated from charity to state policy. But Tubbs wasn’t done.

“Pilots are important, but they are not a replacement for a federal policy,” he told me this year, adding that his ultimate goal is “a federal guaranteed income for all who need it.”

That federal policy would be about getting rid of poverty, yes. But it’s also more than that: As evidence from programs around the world shows, unconditional cash has benefits that go beyond alleviating poverty: It tends to boost happiness, health, school attendance, and trust in social institutions, while reducing crime.

In short, it can be a way to address society’s “structural violence,” as Tubbs puts it. His vision for a federal guaranteed income is ambitious. But he says it’s realistic. “Not only realistic — it’s a necessity,” he told me. “This could be our generation’s Social Security.”

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