Stockton, California, ranked 99th in the top 100 places to live last year, according to U.S. News & World Report. In 2018, though, the city is ranked 124th, a steep decline. That might be why it will soon be the first U.S. city to test Universal Basic Income (UBI).
The city has a lot going against it, costs-wise. Housing prices outpace the national average, and driving is still the only way to get around. The average age is 33.7 years old, and the median income is $46,020 (considered average for people that age). Despite rising average expenses, the job market is dire, and the unemployment rate is far higher than the national average.
Stockton is poised to test Universal Basic Income, just not as we’ve come to know the concept. Rather than dole out $46,020 per year to everyone, it plans to give 100 families $500 per month for two years. This cash has no strings attached, and the program is set to launch this Fall.
But who gets the money? Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED) project manager Lori Ospina argues it should be doled out based on very narrow data, taking into consideration age, race, and income level. This is an argument for making Stockton’s UBI trial a test for helping those who need a little assistance getting over their monthly goal line, rather than a handout.
According to The New York Times, mayor Michael Tubbs wants to select people who are more likely to use the extra $500 per month for bills. He sees an issue with making UBI a ‘welfare’ program, especially if race becomes a major point of debate. “The trolls I’ve been dealing with on social media and in real life have very racialized views of how this is going to work. As the first black mayor of this city, it would be very dangerous if the only people to get this were black,” he said.
Some 74 percent of Stockton residents are non-white (40 percent Hispanic, 20 percent Asian, 14 percent African-American), so Stockton’s UBI test is bound to attract comments by some. It’s also a city that recently filed for bankruptcy, so its core issues have nothing to do with skin color.
UBI has its potential problems. It’s perceived by many as a handout; tech pundits also suggest it’s something the United States will adopt once artificial intelligence (A.I.) begins to replace millions of human workers in a variety of industries. As Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says: “There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better, and if my assessment is correct and they probably will happen, than we have to think about what are we going to do about it? I think some kind of universal basic income is going to be necessary.”
In a now-unpublished report from the White House, the President’s Council of Economic Advisers gave some credence to Stockton’s UBI test. “The issue is not that automation will render the vast majority of the population unemployable,” read the report. “Instead, it is that workers will either lack the skills or the ability to successfully match with the good, high paying jobs created by automation. While a market economy will do much of the work to match workers with new job opportunities, it does not always do so successfully, as we have seen in the past half-century.”
Growing up in Stockton, Tubbs said, he saw people working too hard to keep their head above water: “People were working themselves to death. Not working to live a good life, but working just to survive.” This was well before job-replacing A.I. became a more mainstream idea, and predates the housing market crash in the aughts.
Because it’s something that many cities can execute right now, Stockton’s test is probably more critical than one where humans receive a full salary while not working, which is a much harder “lift” from a budget and policy perspective. As we edge into a tomorrow full of smart machines, it’s possible that training for new roles and duties will become less available; and those who don’t receive such training will have trouble landing new raises and bonuses, much less jobs. A bit of help is not a handout, and experts will be watching closely to see how Stockton handles this universal basic income program. A city left in the past might just be our blueprint for the future.