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California city experiments with universal basic income

Susie Garza displays the city provided debit card she receives monthly through a trial program in Stockton, Calif. Garza is participating in the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration. The program, which started in February, gives $500 a month to 125 people who earn at or below the median household income of $46,033. They can spend the money with no restrictions. Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, who initiated the privately funded program, says it could be a solution to the city's poverty problem. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

STOCKTON, Calif. — Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang wants to give cash to every American each month.

Susie Garza has never heard of Yang. But since February, she’s been getting $500 a month from a nonprofit in Stockton, California, as part of an experiment that offers something unusual in presidential politics: a trial run of a campaign promise, highlighting the benefits and challenges in real time.

Garza can spend the money however she wants. She uses $150 of it to pay for her cellphone and another $100 or so to pay off her dog’s veterinarian bills. She spends the rest on her two grandsons now that she can afford to buy them birthday presents online and let them get the big bag of chips at the 7-Eleven.

“I’ve never been able to do that. I thought it was just the coolest thing,” said Garza, who is unemployed and previously was addicted to drugs, though she said she has been sober for 18 years following a stint in prison. “I like it because I feel more independent, like I’m in charge. I really have something that’s my own.”

Garza is part of an experiment testing the impact of “universal basic income,” an old idea getting new life thanks to the 2020 presidential race, although Stockton’s project is an independent one and has no connection to any presidential race.

Yang, a tech entrepreneur, has anchored his longshot bid with a proposal to give $1,000 in cash to every American, saying the payments will shield workers from the pain of certain job losses caused by automation. The idea has helped him win unexpected support and even muscle out some better-known candidates from the debate stages. His proposal isn’t too far off from one by U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, one of the top contenders for the Democratic nomination, who has a proposal to give up to $500 a month to working families.

Stockton, once known as the foreclosure capital of the country and for one of the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcies, is a step ahead of both candidates. In February, the city launched the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, a pilot program spearheaded by a new mayor and financed in part by the nonprofit led by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. The city chose 125 people who live in census tracts at or below the city’s median household income of $46,033. They get the money on a debit card on the 15th of each month.

“I think poverty is immoral, I think it is antiquated and I think it shouldn’t exist,” said Michael Tubbs, the city’s 29-year-old Democratic mayor.

Tubbs’ personal story includes a cousin who was killed, a father who is in prison and a mother who, as a teenager, raised him with the help of multiple jobs. He found his way to Stanford and public service, where he persuaded his beleaguered city to sign on to a provocative new idea: guaranteed cash.

Stockton residents, who have elected Republican mayors for 16 out of the last 22 years, were skeptical, worried about encouraging people not to work. Tubbs said he calmed their fears by noting the money came from private donations, not taxpayer dollars.

“I would tell people all that time that would be upset or would call angry, I would say, well, I’m just as angry as you are, but I’m angry about the problem. I’m not angry about possible solutions,” Tubbs said.

A team of researchers is monitoring the participants. Their chief interest is not finances but happiness. They are using what they call a “mattering scale” to measure how much people feel like they matter to society.

“Do people notice you are there? Those things are correlated to health and well-being,” said Stacia Martin-West, a researcher at the University of Tennessee who is working on the program along with Amy Castro-Baker at the University of Pennsylvania.

The money has made Jovan Bravo happier. The 31-year-old Stockton native and construction worker is married and has three children, ages 13, 8 and 4.