Former mayor’s guaranteed income project now the subject of a documentary
By Sandra Varner
JA Guest Writer
Michael Tubbs is well aware of the sobering statistics about American poverty. The former mayor of Stockton, CA, grew up poor and knew he needed to address it.
Census numbers showing 37.9 million Americans living below the poverty line, of which 23.51 million are women, comes as no surprise to him.
“It’s one thing to talk about poverty, but it’s another thing to have lived it,” Tubbs said during our recent interview. “I’ve been hungry. I’ve watched my mother struggle, be stressed and anxious; not just my mother, but my aunt, my grandmother, and your whole community. Realizing these folks were smart, they were working hard; they were contributing, but for a variety of reasons, were always running on that perpetual hamster wheel.”
Tubbs did something about it while mayor of Stockton, creating a Guaranteed Income (GI) program, which has since become a model for cities nationwide. Called “SEED” (Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration), the two-year pilot provided 125 low-income residents with $500 per month in guaranteed basic income. Data collected since the conclusion of the pilot showed reduced income volatility, recipients enabled to find full-time employment, and health benefits, including less depression and anxiety.
“I think every kid should have the same opportunities that my kid has. We’re saying maybe the massive disparities and outcomes we see are because folks start with different levels of opportunity,” Tubbs said. “I really feel like it’s my purpose. I don’t do everything in the Bible perfectly, but I know I do this part really well.” The focused and impassioned leader describes his work as ministry beyond the pulpit.
Although he wasn’t re-elected, Tubbs went on to found Mayors for a Guaranteed Income (MGI). “The platform of being a former mayor has been helpful. Losing wasn’t easy, but it really clarified my purpose. I just know very clearly [that] I’m going to be fighting against poverty. I’m going to be fighting for Black people. I’m going to be fighting for all marginalized folks. Now there are 150 mayors across this country who say, ‘I believe in guaranteed income,’ when six years ago there were zero. I feel such an honor and a blessing to be a part of that,” he said.
The Black Lives Matter movement added yet another impetus, the Stanford alum said. “When George Floyd was murdered, I spent a lot of time in mourning and reflection. I thought about how in 1968, Dr. King wrote his last book, Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos, Or Community? In that book, he talked about guaranteed income. The context was that there were riots or uprisings in the country at that time, similar to what we saw in 2020, because of racial injustice, because of poverty, because of lack of opportunity.”
Tubbs knew that to convince a wider audience of the value of guaranteed income, he was going to have to be very transparent. “I said, ‘What we’re going to do first is to be very open about sharing the story.’ We’re going to document everything.
“We’re going to have research. I’ll use my relationship with other mayors and help evangelize the concept. By the time we started in Stockton, mayors across the country were watching. When 2020 happened, with COVID, mayors began experimenting with giving people one-time dollars, $700 here, $500 there, to help people get through the pandemic.”
Tubbs’ newest project is a feature-length documentary on the national guaranteed income movement. He’s the executive producer of It’s Basic, directed by Marc Levin, who met Tubbs in 2016 while doing research for another documentary film.
It’s Basic looks at several pilot programs launched in the U.S. that test the effects of giving everyday people an extra $500 to $1,000 monthly, with no strings attached. The film explores the power of cash, the importance of dignity, and the ongoing work of providing an income floor through the eyes of guaranteed income recipients who have witnessed firsthand the life-altering effects of financial stability.
Using the stories of people from St. Paul, Cambridge, Gainesville, Newark, and Los Angeles, along with interviews from several of the MGI mayors, the film is described as “a must-see for anyone who cares about poverty, inequality, and the future of work. It’s Basic is an eye-opening look at the power of cash to transform lives and communities. It is a powerful call to action for policymakers to invest in guaranteed income to build a more just and equitable society.”
“We know that $500 isn’t enough to solve every issue facing the world. But for someone who’s $300 short on rent, it makes a big difference. That’s why we’re doing this documentary,” said Tubbs. “The film will put a face, some stories, and some emotions behind the data.
“I really think that change [occurs and] moves at the power of narrative. I think we have the hope,” he said. “The documentary helps us understand the story of people who are struggling, not because they’re deficient, not because they’re bad, not because they’re dumb, not because they’re lazy, but because of policy and structural issues. We have a solution that can help not just those people, but everyone. It’s about people seeing their circumstances reflected. They can think about what $500, $750, a thousand dollars a month could mean for them and their families.”
For more information about It’s Basic, visit www.itsbasicdocumentary.com.