California’s pioneer program of tackling poverty attracts extensive attention

by Qingwen Dong, Heng Huang
STOCKTON, the United States, April 15  — “You work hard, you will have at least your basic needs taken care of. This is simply not true (in America). People are working so hard, but they are still not able to pay for their necessities,” Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs told researchers.

Tubbs, a graduate of Stanford University who became Stockton’s city council member at the age of 22 and the mayor in 2016, made the remarks on Wednesday at a symposium investigating the city’s guaranteed income program at University of the Pacific in the city, which is about one hour of drive to Sacramento.

Stockton is a city of about 300,000 people sharing a comfortable cost of living in California.
In 2008, the city was hit hard during the economic recession and became the second largest city in the United States to file for bankruptcy protection. So far, the city still remains behind the nation with a median household income of 44,797 U.S. dollars, falling behind the California state median income of 61,818 U.S. dollars.

In order to help local residents deal with basic need challenges, Tubbs led the central valley city to take on a social experiment by offering people cash monthly to see how the guaranteed income may have an impact on its residents’ financial, psychological and physical well-being.

Since this February, 130 Stockton residents started receiving a debit card of 500 U.S. dollars a month for 18 months and they can spend the money in whatever way they want.
All participants in the experiment, known as Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), must earn a median income at or below 46,033 U.S. dollars.

“We should not let people work without basic protection. We should not let people work without health care. We should no let people work, work , work, and they have nothing to show for,” Tubbs explained the initiative of SEED.

“The excitement of the project is not just those families who receive the benefits, but it gives us a chance to interrogate our values as a country and a community, putting the values into action,” he added.

One of these participants is a single mother with two young children, aged 7 and 9, according to Tubbs who did not disclose her name. She had a typical working day of 13 to 14 hours, waking up children, dressing them, and taking them to day care, then cooking dinner, showering the kids and making beds for them.

Tubbs, the youngest mayor in Stockton’ history and its first African American mayor, said the mother really appreciates the program as the money she receives helps the family tremendously, assisting her to catch up with her bills, getting kids the things they want.

Tubbs cited another recipient as example who moved to Stockton five years ago from Oakland. This lady left her job due to her work injury. She was starving because she could not get her pension going and nor her social security.

“There is no longer a pay check for her,” Tubbs said. “Now the 500 U.S. dollars cash helped her get her car repaired in time.”
These two recipients illustrate who these 130 recipients are and what they are using the benefits for, Tubbs said, emphasizing that hard working people deserve dignity, and these people work so hard and they should become comfortable in their life, not worrying about to buy the basic needs and enjoy themselves.

There is a misconception that poor people are sitting at home, collecting government benefits, quite lazy and do not like working, Tubbs added, repeating that the majority of poor people do work.
Stacia Martin-West, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who is one of the principal investigators of the project and a panelist at the symposium, agreed that the demographic features of the 130 participants reflect the population of Stockton.

The city’s guaranteed income program has already got into today’s political discourse among presidential candidates eyeing next year’s U.S. presidential election.
California senator Kamala Harris, one of the top Democratic presidential runners, held a similar idea, proposing to give 6,000 U.S. dollars tax credit for U.S. families earning less than 100,000 U.S. dollars per year.

The pioneer program puts Stockton not only on the map of the nation, but also of the rest of the world. A few countries are eager to learn more about the impact of the experiment. But experts taking part in the meeting said it is still too early to tell how the experiment will reduce poverty in Stockton.

One challenge is how to define and measure the end goal of the experiment, since only 130 people receive the benefits. Stockton is a city where one in four people is living in poverty, according to the latest U.S. census data.
Amy Castro-Baker, an assistant professor at University of Pennsylvania, the other principal investigator of the project, said at the symposium that there is no one measure to evaluate the experiment.

The most important things are that more information can be obtained from these participants and that how and why the benefits shape their decision making, Castro-Baker said. At this point, the program does not have specific support or counseling system for the recipients when the program ends.

The program is also facing another challenge of how it can benefit the city overall, Adrianna Brogger, associate professor of Stockton Delta College, told the symposium audience. The story teller project she is leading as a part of the SEED initiative does help generate much awareness about the social and economic issues facing Stockton’s residents.

Answering what will happen to the recipients after the program ends, she explained, “It is a real concern and we are thinking through and working through this. We tell the people in the program that even if the program works so well or not so well. The program will end in 18 months.” – XINHUA