Stockton’s Basic Income Experiment

By Lola Weber

April 7th, 2021

At the fringe of the Bay Area’s tech economy, Stockton, CA, has made momentous strides in welfare provision. 

In a new experiment/demonstration program, payments of $500 a month were made out to 125 randomly selected residents whose average annual incomes fell under $46,000 (The city’s median). These stipends were no-strings-attached, allowing for recipients to spend their money under their own discretion, without drug tests or work requirements. 

This donor-funded demonstration, officially titled the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, was initiated by Stockton’s previous mayor, Michael Tubbs, in 2019. By the end of the study period, in February 2020, there was a rise in full-time employment among stipend recipients, with improvements in physical, financial, and emotional health. 

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Tennessee collected and analyzed data from Stockton’s experiment. The most prominent findings included the increase in overall income volatility, leading to fluctuations of 46 percent, rather than the control group’s 68 percent. The vast majority of stipend spending was on necessities such as gas, utilities, and food. 

It was found that many families were able to pay off debts, with the added cash doubling their ability to pay for unexpected expenses. This financial stability seeped into the community itself, allowing for recipients to provide greater help to their own friends and families. 

One recipient told The Atlantic that, “It helped me to be able to take care of my groceries without having to run to the food bank three times a month. That was very helpful.”. That same recipient faced a period of homelessness due to a fire in her apartment complex, a period which was quickly dismissed by her added income which secured a new downpayment. 

What might be the most imperative aspect of this demonstration is its case against welfare stigma. Researchers found that Stockton’s basic income did not dissuade working, even going so far as to aid people in finding work through providing stability and resources. Recipients experienced a 12 point increase in employment, a much larger increase to that of the control group’s five point increase. 

These findings shouldn’t be inherently shocking, as the desire for stability and basic necessities is relatively obvious to anyone. It’s more so the idea of people ‘abusing’ welfare and becoming dependent on it which we have so strongly internalized. 

As seen in this demonstration, the only way to provide greater opportunity to those in poverty is to provide them with adequate resources. There is no reason as to why people shouldn’t be provided with greater stability, sufficient food, and less destitution. 

The politics of welfare is seeing its height at this very moment, with pandemic legislation displaying just how impactful cash stimulus is. Poverty ultimately finds itself to be the greatest threat to opportunity and potential on all scales, something that should be eliminated, and Stockton just reinforces this. 

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