MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
What would you do with an extra 500 bucks a month, no strings attached? Well, thanks to an experimental program in Stockton, Calif., we now have some answers. Since February, the city has been sending $500 debit cards every month to 125 residents who all earn less than Stockton's median annual income, which is about $46,000.
Stockton is the first city in the U.S. to experiment with universal basic income, and that's an idea that's been getting a lot of attention from Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. The program is called Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration or SEED. And now, eight months into the 18-month pilot program, researchers have started releasing information about how participants are spending the money and what effect it's having on their lives.
Stockton's mayor, Michael Tubbs, is overseeing the program. And he was nice enough to join us to tell us more about how it's going. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for joining us.
MICHAEL TUBBS: Thank you so much for having me, Michel.
MARTIN: First of all could, you just tell us how you got interested in this idea?
TUBBS: Well, I think it starts from the fact that Stockton, Calif., about 23% of my residents are in poverty. I had my research team research the most radical ways to just get rid of poverty, and they came back with this idea of a basic income. When I was in college, I had studied Dr. King. And he talked about how the richest nation in the world should be able to provide a economic floor for everyone. And he talked about the need for a guaranteed minimum income.
So when my team came back with that idea, I said, oh, I remember hearing about this from Dr. King. Let's figure out how to do it. And we were lucky enough to meet the Economic Security Project, who decided to philanthropically fund the pilot in Stockton.
MARTIN: So let's get to the heart of the matter. What did people spend the money on?
TUBBS: Well, probably no surprise to you, Michel, nor to the folks listening, but since they're - people we gave the money to, they spent money just how me, you and those listening would spend it - on things like food, on things like merchandise and things like utilities. There's a couple - those stories of a lady who used it to buy dentures 'cause she had gone for two years with really bad teeth. She talks about how now she can smile.
MARTIN: Let me just stop you just for one second. I do want to hear some more stories. But you said at the beginning of that answer that no surprise to you. One of the arguments that people have made against this idea for years is that people will blow it. They'll pay for - well, you can imagine what some of the critics have said. And what you're saying, that is not the case. The data should - let me just read some of the figures. They say 40% spent it on food, 24% on merchandise from Walmart and similar stores, 12% on utility bills, 9% on car repairs. So tell me some of the other things that you heard from people, some of the other anecdotes that you heard.
TUBBS: Anecdotally, in terms of how money is being spent, there is a gentleman named Tomas (ph). He talks about how the $500 gave him the space to take a risk to take time off his part-time job to interview for a full-time job which he received. And that was just so groundbreaking for me 'cause I said, well, people told me, Tomas, that this would make folks work less. You're saying this gave you the freedom to take a risk, that you could afford and take a day or two off work to interview for this full-time job, which when this program is over will allow you to kind of work more with their benefits and provide for your family.
MARTIN: So the money was distributed on debit cards. So could the recipient simply withdraw cash, which would be untraceable? I mean, as you know, this has been one of the arguments for why certain municipalities or jurisdictions have tried to put more and more restrictions on food aid, for example. So do you even know where some of the money is going?
TUBBS: So some of the money was withdrawn, not for nefarious purposes but because some things require cash. If - even an offering at church, that requires cash. I know my barber requires cash. To counter that, what we've done is that part of the research design is both quantitative and qualitative. So in addition to getting into the debit card transactions, the research team is also interviewing folks and kind of getting an understanding of how money is being spent in ways that isn't traced by the debit card transactions.
MARTIN: Just for the sake of argument, let's say some people are blowing it. Does that matter?
TUBBS: I don't think it does because I don't think, in the status quo, there's one intervention, one policy, one program that has a 100% success rate. So I think there will be times through the program where someone may spend the $500 in a way that will be different in terms of how I spend it. But I also think that we're put on earth not just to work and not just to have the bare minimum but to enjoy.
So if someone wants to go take their kids to Disneyland, I don't see that as a bad purchase. If someone wants to go have a self-care day and get their nails done, I don't see that as a bad use. And I say that because if you look at, for example, the $2 trillion through the Trump tax cuts, I haven't seen any subpoenas or audits or questions about how that money is being spent.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, Mr. Mayor, as we mentioned earlier, this has been paid for through a grant from the Economic Security Project. How could this work in the long term if you decided to make this policy - any ideas?
TUBBS: Yeah. Well, I think for any policy to establish an income floor for people, it would have to be at a state or national level. So at the state level, Governor Newsom has already expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit. At the federal level, Senator Harris has her Lift America Act. And Representative Rashida Tlaib has her LIFT Plus Act which would essentially provide $500 a month through the tax code to every family in America making 100k or less. So I think those are good first steps. And I know a lot of people are worried about cost and funding, but I don't think the issue is one of math but a political will.
MARTIN: That is Michael Tubbs. He is the mayor of Stockton, Calif. Mr. Mayor, thanks so much for talking to us. I hope you'll keep us posted as this project continues.
TUBBS: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me, Michel. You guys are welcome to visit Stockton anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.