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In California, Stockton Is Running Its Own Experiment With A Universal Basic Income


The idea of a universal basic income could well make it onto the Democratic presidential debate stage tonight. Tech entrepreneur-turned-candidate Andrew Yang's version, the freedom dividend, suggests giving a thousand dollars a month to every American adult. It might seem like a gimmick, but one American city is running its own version of the experiment. From member station KQED, Lily Jamali reports from Stockton, Calif.

LILY JAMALI: Since February, Zohna Everett has been one of 125 Stockton residents receiving $500 a month, no strings attached. Her neighborhood was targeted in an experiment to help lower-income communities in Stockton. Everett vividly remembers the moment she learned she'd been randomly selected.

ZOHNA EVERETT: I was in disbelief. To this day, I'm still, like, wow.

JAMALI: The extra money comes in the form of a prepaid debit card. And for Everett, it's come in handy. The first $50 goes to her church, and the rest...

EVERETT: It's set up for my bills. You know, me and my husband have it set up for direct deposit for DIRECTV, electricity bill and car insurance. You know, there's some left over for date night.

JAMALI: Everett and her husband commute to their jobs at a Tesla factory in Silicon Valley. Stockton is only 60 miles from there, but it feels like a world away. In 2012, it became the biggest U.S. city at the time to file for bankruptcy, just as the tech boom was taking off. Major tech names, including Everett's boss, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, have expressed support for universal basic income as automation threatens to destroy American jobs. So when a group of Silicon Valley donors offered to fund a million-dollar income experiment in Stockton without taxpayer help, the city's mayor, Michael Tubbs, jumped at the chance.

MICHAEL TUBBS: The biggest surprise for me was how much of it was spent on food. The fact that 40% was spent on something as basic as food that's needed just for sustenance and to live I think also showed me that the economy is even more fragile - or the economic conditions of folks are even more fragile than I had anticipated.

JAMALI: Recently released data shows much of the rest also went towards basics like clothing and utilities. If Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang has his way, it wouldn't be just the needy but every American, regardless of income, who'd get a thousand dollars a month. He argues that a universal basic income would take the pressure off the daily lives of people and that they could spend more time with family or even use it to start a business. Here he is at last month's debate.


ANDREW YANG: When we put the money into our hands, we can build a trickle-up economy. From our people, our families and our communities up, it will enable us to do the kind of work that we want to do.

JAMALI: But critics cite the cost - $4 trillion, by some estimates; almost the size of the federal government's entire 2018 budget. A consumption tax is one way to pay for it. Another, warns MIT economics professor Daron Acemoglu, is by tapping the budgets of existing social programs.

DAREN ACEMOGLU: I think the real danger of basic income is that it would come not to supplement but replace existing programs. They need to be strengthened. And if you try to replace them with basic income, then you have actually weakened - significantly weakened the social safety net.

JAMALI: Nonetheless, Yang has helped elevate the concept of universal basic income by bringing it to the Democratic presidential debate stage, like tonight's in Georgia. For recipients of the experiment in Stockton, it's more than a concept. It's their reality - at least for a few more months.

For NPR News, I'm Lily Jamali.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lily Jamali