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Stockton rolls out universal income experiment

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Hard-luck city to offer low-income families $500 per month

Downtown Stockton, with a reflecting pool in the foreground.
City of Stockton.
Photo by LPS.1/Wikicommons

The city of Stockton is committing to an experiment with a Universal Basic Income (UBI) in 2018: The city will supplement a few low-income Stockton families’ budgets to the tune of $500/month and then monitor the results.

Announced in October of last year, the Stockton pilot will run for 12-18 months. The project is largely the ward of Stockton’s 27-year-old mayor Michael Tubbs, who frames the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration [SEED] program as a potential cure for a shooting gallery of city problems.


When the rug is yanked out from underneath families, they find it difficult if not impossible to find financial security. The negative consequences of economic instability are putting an untenable strain on the education system, health care, and community lives. As work continues to fragment and wages continue to stagnate, the prognosis will only get worse.

Tubbs tells NPR the city will consider applicants through June and pay out from a $1.2 million fund of charity grants. Tubbs cites Martin Luther King Jr. as an inspiration—King endorsed “a guaranteed minimum income for all people” during a 1967 speech at Stanford, and on other occasions.

In 2016, the U.S. Census estimated that the median income in Stockton was just over $46,000. In 2012, the city declared bankruptcy.

San Francisco put out feelers for a similar UBI plan in 2017, but an actual program has yet to manifest. However, private groups have taken the initiative on their own.

Stockton from above.
Photo by Ken Lund/Wikicommons

For example, Y Combinator Research, a nonprofit affiliate of the Y Combinator startup incubator program, is in the middle of a similar probe right now, offering 1,000 people a sum of $1,000/month.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk predicted in 2016 that, in the near future, a basic income program of some kind will be “necessary.”

And Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took to his own Facebook page to praise an Alaskan program as a model for basic income and encouraged other states and metros to imitate it, citing business wisdom from his startup days:

“When you’re losing money, your mentality is largely about survival. When you’re profitable, you’re confident about your future and you look for opportunities to invest.”

The folks at Y Combinator are pretty frank about why Silicon Valley is suddenly so keen on exploring this old idea: New technology tends to torpedo existing jobs. They even quote former President Barack Obama’s anxious comments about the future of automation in a 2017 proposal:

At some point, when the problem is not just Uber but driverless Uber, when radiologists are losing their jobs to A.I., then we’re going to have to figure out how do we maintain a cohesive society and a cohesive democracy in which productivity and wealth generation are not automatically linked to how many hours you put in, where the links between production and distribution are broken, in some sense.

As author Douglas Rushkoff noted in the LA Times, private interest in basic income is a matter of thinking ahead:

“They understand the basic math: If they automate all the jobs, who will be left to buy their services? [...] The penniless have no consumer behavior to exploit.”