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Young Northern California Mayor Advances Innovative Concept of Universal Basic Income But Faces Push Back 

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Stockton, California mayor Michael Tubbs

Universal basic income, a regularly issued cash benefit for all adults, remains just a progressive concept on a national level in the United States. But that hasn’t stopped tech entrepreneurs like Richard Branson and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg from getting behind it, partly in response to the jobs likely to disappear as tech automation continues, the effects of which have already caused ripples inside Silicon Valley.

Much has changed on the West Coast, as a lack of affordable housing and the soaring costs of, well, everything have forced native Californians to make tough decisions in recent years. Some (like this writer) have left altogether, while others have persevered, moving farther out from metropolitan centers and opting for longer commutes in an attempt to escape the Bay Area’s crippling homeownership and rental prices. Despite boasting some of the highest salaries in the nation, even Silicon Valley has felt the pinch, with workers increasingly leaving for other areas.

In a report on last year’s tech salaries, Hired revealed “For decades, Silicon Valley has been the epicenter of the tech industry, but the rise of new technology and innovation hubs across the United States and the world are challenging the Bay Area’s reign. In fact, after adjusting for cost of living in San Francisco, cities like Austin, Melbourne, Seattle, and Toronto are increasingly attractive spots for tech workers to grow their careers.”

Those not already making $100k annually have found it even harder to stay afloat, including residents of Stockton, a midsized city just east of the Bay Area that was once plagued by the highest foreclosure rates in the nation after the collapse of the housing market. Since the city filed for bankruptcy in 2012, it has struggled to rebuild, plagued by high housing costs and low wages. Faced with dwindling opportunities and rising costs, many are struggling in a state that has the sixth largest economy in the world.

It’s a situation that 27-year-old Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs is all too familiar with. Speaking with CNN Money last October, he shared his own experiences with economic uncertainty, including the predatory payday loan companies his mother sometimes used to help the family get by.

“If we had $300 a month, life would be less stressful, or we could move into another neighborhood. Maybe she would’ve been able to go back to school and get her BA, or pursue a passion,” said Tubbs.

Now Tubbs is trying to create a financial safety net for Stockton residents, announcing an initiative called the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), shortly after taking office last year. Under Tubbs’ program, several hundred low-income residents would receive $500 per month for one year, with no official requirements needed to qualify. 

Announced in October, the website advertised that the program will “Kick off the demonstration with a six to nine-month design period that will prioritize community engagement and feedback. In that time period, we will concrete the family selection process and identify research and storytelling partners. … We also identify research priorities that complement existing research on unconditional cash transfers in the United States and invest in storytelling that honestly and authentically uplifts the experiences of recipients.”

In lieu of tax dollars, the program is being funded through crowdfunding, donors and a $1 million grant from the Economic Security Project. According to the SEED website, the initiative will serve as “A guaranteed income for all Americans to ensure opportunity and economic security.  

“We are a city with a challenging past — and a promising future. Stockton is in many ways a microcosm of the United States. Major shifts in the economy such as persistent wage stagnation and rising inequality have made it increasingly difficult for hardworking people to make ends meet.”

While Finland and Canada have experimented with their own versions of UBI programs, the concept has gained little national-level traction in the United States, leaving cities like Stockton and a private group in Oakland, California, to take the lead. Alaska residents have long enjoyed similar benefits, courtesy of the 42-year-old Alaska Permanent Fund that distributes annual payments courtesy of state revenue gained through natural resources.

It’s a method that Tubbs hopes will find success in Stockton, a city still facing the consequences of bad financial decisions made long before he arrived in office. Speaking with KQED News, he explained, “I think Stockton is absolutely ground zero for a lot of the issues we are facing as a nation.” Tubbs added, “We’ve overspent on things like arenas and marinas and things of that sort to try to lure in tourism and dollars that way.”

Still, opponents are not convinced, with a group of individuals recently coming together in an effort to recall Mayor Tubbs, a move that will require a petition of 16,000 signatures. The petition, led by Brenda Vazquez, accuses Tubbs of not exercising fiscal prudence and increasing city council budget to give his “unqualified” friends jobs. It also states in part, ”(Tubbs) neglects basic city services such as parks and street maintenance … neglects homelessness … and other major city issues.

“He is not vested in Stockton with over 70 percent of campaign contributions coming from outside the city, avoids engaging his constituents by voting to hold council meetings once per month and blocking dissenters on social media. His focus has been using his position for personal celebrity.”

Those against UBI, in general, have also expressed doubts, including critics that suggest a guaranteed wage could diminish American work ethic, a theory early studies have thus far found no evidence to support. While some left-leaning proponents have fought for UBI as an addition to existing benefits, others argue that support for it on a national level could result to cuts in programs like Medicaid and food stamps; a move that would leave millions of elderly and low-income Americans at risk. 

As studies continue to emerge, organizations like the Economic Security Project have conducted research on the use of experimental UBI programs. “Those left of center like the idea of using (basic income) as a supplement to the existing safety net,” co-chairwoman Natalie Foster told the San Francisco Chronicle.

For now, Stockton continues to forge ahead with the experimental income program. However, it appears the crowdfunding efforts have nearly stalled with only $1,000 raised of the $500,000 goal. It is unclear if the pushback from local residents are negatively impacting Tubbs’ effort. But the mayor isn’t backing down from his mission. He told Capital Public Radio, “This is not a handout, it’s a hand up. You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don’t have boots. How do you make sure folks who are working two or three jobs, how do we make sure they are able to enjoy the American Dream we hold so dear?”

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