Stockton, California ranked number one on Forbes’ list of the most miserable cities in America a few years ago. Stockton was known for home foreclosures and high poverty and crime rates. The city declared bankruptcy in 2012.
In 2019, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs launched a pilot program giving $500 per month to more than 100 residents of the city’s lower-income neighborhoods.
Now other mayors, including LA’s Eric Garcetti, have joined an initiative that Mayor Tubbs started. It’s called Mayors for Guaranteed Income.
KCRW speaks with Mayor Tubbs about how his universal basic income program is doing, why COVID-19 is hitting his city hard, who he’s endorsing for the November election, and whether he might run for higher office.
KCRW: In the new HBO documentary “Stockton On My Mind,” you say, “One in two Americans can’t afford one $400 emergency. And I was shocked. That’s just not people in poverty. That’s a lot of people. So I sent my staff an email and said, ‘Hey you guys, give me something I haven’t heard of. What’s the craziest thing you can come back with?’ Two days later, they came back with ‘you just give people money.’ I said, ‘That’s crazy.’”
When did you no longer think it was crazy to just give people money?
Michael Tubbs: “I began to think otherwise after digging into the research and the data from other kind of cash transfer experiments, particularly those done in Canada, Ontario, but also in the states with some Native American tribes. … And things done by GiveDirectly in Kenya and other places. Dolly Parton's cash transfer in Tennessee during the fires a couple of years ago. And every time, it pointed to cash as being something that was actually very helpful, particularly during pandemics or times that require economic resilience.
So then I was convinced to test the idea. … Over the past 18 months, seeing it at work in my city, seeing how my city has not turned into a communist country because we're doing this, seeing that people haven't forgot [sic] how to work because we’re doing this. But hearing the stories of folks that are able to pay rent, able to pay for dentures, able to pay off credit card debt, able to interview for a better job, able take time off and quarantine when they're sick. I've become more and more convinced that it's not a crazy idea.
What's crazy is the amount of poverty and economic insecurity we allow to run unchecked in our country, particularly at a time when people like Jeff Bezos make $13 billion in a single 24-hour period.”
About 100 people are getting $500 a month. How much of a difference does that money make?
“125 people. … It's funny because when you hear $500, it sounds very small. But given the fact that again pre-COVID, one in two Americans can’t afford one $500 emergency, given the fact that we know that most evictions are done for amounts owed of less than $500, that most people get in debt for things that are small and then it escalates and compounds — that $500 a month is a small price to pay to allow people the benefits of not being economically insecure.
So I was surprised at how long $500 could go, and what $500 could mean for residents and people. I think because of that, that's why you see so many other mayors joining on, and you see $500 as a floor. And you have bills right now in the Congress and in the Senate that speak to $2,000 a month, or $1,000 a month, which is probably more in line with what's needed.”
Senate Republicans want to cut the $600/week unemployment benefits to $200. Their argument is that a lot of people were getting more money on unemployment than they were working, and it was a disincentive to work. Do you see an amount that helps people but doesn’t make it unappealing to work?
“We probably have to raise wages, right? The fact that $600 is more than what people make is an indictment on the low level of wages we're paying people, particularly when we know their work is creating more than $600 of value for shareholders, and for the people who own the places in which they work.
… But even with unemployment insurance, what we've seen, particularly in California, is that 40% of people who have applied for unemployment insurance, as of two weeks ago, still have not received a check. Meaning that even unemployment insurance does not get to everyone who not only needs it, but has paid into it.
That's why I'm so adamant on the need for a guaranteed income, at least during COVID-19. So that it's regular, it's ongoing, it's reoccurring, it goes to everyone. So everyone has the money they need to budget, they have the money they need to quarantine. Because we don't want people to go to work if they have coughs or if they have fevers.”
Should everyone get a Universal Basic Income?
“I think universal would be great. But political realities where they are, as long as the people who need it the most get it, I'm satisfied. But if we get to universality, I think it'll be more politically feasible. I think it'll be more likely for people not to feel the stigma: 'Oh, we get this because we're Americans' versus 'you get this because you're poor.'”
If everyone gets Universal Basic Income, does that let companies off the hook from raising wages?
“I would say no, because we have a series of policies on a lot of things in this country. I understand there's not one panacea for everything. And there's no basic income right now, so what's the reason why the wages are low right now? People are currently off the hook, which is part of the problem.
I also think that a guaranteed income also gives money to people who are working but aren't compensated for their work. Particularly women who do caregiving and domestic labor at home, where it's cheaper for them to do child care for free in their house than to go work at McDonald's, make minimum wage, and have to pay for somebody to watch their child. And what's heartbreaking to me, as a father of a 9 month old, is that if they did that work next door, or across the street, or down the street, they would be compensated. But because they're doing child rearing in their house, they're not.”
You proposed a mandatory mask order in June, but got pushback from top county health officials. What happened?
“Shellie Lima — the Director of the Office of Emergency Services — her job and her function is to actually procure PPE [personal protective equipment]. Like masks for everyone in the county. And when I proposed the mask ordnance, it's after spending a month and a half with our public health officer and saying, ‘Hey, we're going to open up, we need to have a mask ordinance so we can stay open and people don't get sick going back to work.’
There was some fear about backlash and pushback and death threats. I said, ‘You know what, I'll do it.’ So I put it on the agenda. And a lot of people actually came out and spoke against wearing masks. Letters, phone calls, Facebook comments — it’s all based off misinformation and lack of understanding of science. And the entire council voted it down. But at the same time, Miss Lima sent me an email and said, 'Stay in your lane. It's safer to not wear masks than to wear masks.' All type of crazy stuff.
So I responded with, 'I hope that logic is not the thought pattern … underlying the response we are responsible for delivering, particularly for my constituents.’ As you noted, we have a huge outbreak and disproportionate impact on our Latino community because of the lack of strategy and preparation on behalf of the county. So now we're working double time with the governor, with the county, with local CEOs to address that. Because it is unacceptable. It was actually avoidable with common sense, science-based solutions and strategies.”
Were you not able to implement that order?
“No. We weren't able to implement that order, but luckily the governor about 10 days later made a statewide order.”
Did Shellie Lima apologize to you for saying stay in your lane?
“It was very rude, very inappropriate. I made sure that I responded. I let her know and copied her boss' boss' boss, and her boss. … But haven't received an apology. … The best apology would be a strategy — what are you going to do to lower and flatten the curve, and how can the city assist? I'm all in for that.”
Governor Newsom announced a federal grant for San Joaquin County, and Stockton is part of that. Will that help you?
“Yes that’s going to help … provided that the county spends the money in a strategic way.”
Why has COVID-19 hit Stockton so hard?
“First and foremost, we have a large amount of essential workers who are out working in the fields, or in restaurants, or in stores, etc. Number two, I think a lack of clear information from leadership, from the president. At the same time, members of the Board of Supervisors were trying to get race cars open, and fighting to get golf courses open, down to not wearing masks at their meetings, which are televised. So sending a message that it's not that serious. A lot of misinformation proliferates throughout the community because of Fox News, but also fake news websites in the city.
So I think all that conspired. And then a lack of strategy on behalf of the county, particularly around spending Cares Act dollars, $130 million given from the state to the county to address the impacts of COVID-19. And I'm the mayor of the city, and I can't tell you how the county plans on spending that money.”
You became mayor the same year Donald Trump was elected. Do you see irony in that?
“I did. I think it paints two radically different versions of America. And I think I am probably one of Donald Trump's — not worst nightmares, but not something he probably would be comfortable seeing. I think because I'm Black, I'm intelligent, I love data and science and facts.”
Why did you endorse Michael Bloomberg in the last presidential election?
“I endorsed Michael Bloomberg because at the time, the candidate I was supporting — Senator [Kamala] Harris — had dropped off the race. I had conversations with every campaign who reached out. And I was certain at that point that the nominee would be an older white man. And of the three older white men who were running … Mayor Bloomberg was the one I had the closest relationship with. I thought he had the best chance in terms of having the resources, and also the record, and the relationship [sic] to beat Donald Trump. And I was wrong. I'm excited that Joe Biden is a nominee, and I'm looking forward to supporting him in November.”
Would you like Senator Kamala Harris to be Joe Biden’s running mate?
“I would love for Senator Harris to be the Vice President.”
What is the most surprising thing to you about politics?
“Just how petty and small it is, and how so much of the information does not get to the people who need to hear it. I've been spending the last seven years as an elected official figuring out: How do I get the information to the people? So that they hear it, they know the programs, they know what's going on. I don't have a good answer for that yet. But that's why I think conversations like this one, and doing as much press as possible, is important to kind of meet people where they are.”
Do you have visions of running for a higher office?
“I'm running for reelection right now. And then in 2024, I'm termed out. At that time I'll be 34 years old, and I think my wife and I will have a conversation about whether the sacrifices and personal toll of being in public service are worth the impact we're able to make. If so, we'll run for another office. But if not, we'll figure out something else that will still allow us to make an impact. … I'm open to any and all opportunities, including elected office, but I'm not wedded that I have to be an elected official for the rest of my life.”
— Written by Erin Senne and Amy Ta, produced by Nihar Patel