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Mayor Michael Tubbs Is Not Done Fighting

Five years ago, Michael Tubbs piloted the first-ever mayor-led guaranteed income program in the U.S. It was a great success. But he's not done fighting for parents.

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered the reality of American politics and fundamentally shifted the way government operates in the best interests of people. Throughout the pandemic, millions of Americans have received direct cash in the form of stimulus checks, and parents, a first-of-its-kind expanded child tax credit, that amounted to monthly cash benefit for parents below a certain income threshold.

These two programs — and, in particular, the child tax credit — amount to a “type” of basic income. With a federal government that has been notoriously skittish over providing cash benefits to citizens, instead choosing to give out EBT cards, food stamps, and in-kind benefits over no-strings-attached cash, the move to expand the Child Tax Credit, which has dramatically slashed child poverty in its few months of existence, is nothing short of extraordinary. And for those who have been touting universal basic income (or UBI,) as a solution for years, like former Mayor of Stockton, Michael Tubbs, it was a welcome step forward – and proof positive of what he knew to be true.

When Tubbs took office in Stockton in 2016 as the youngest ever mayor (he was only 22), and the first-ever Black mayor in the city, he began the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration. Known as the SEED program, it was a basic income program that was part of a privately-funded pilot project that gave a $500 monthly cash benefit to Stockton residents for 18 months starting in 2019. The first-ever mayor-led guaranteed income program in the U.S., it was a roaring success. Research showed that it decreased anxiety and stress of Stockton residents and that those who received the basic income were able to find better jobs and pursue career advancement due to the extra monthly cash. And for Tubbs, the best part of the program was that it helped the parents who received the cash benefit to, well, be parents. To him, that’s what the government’s job should be — to help parents parent their kids.

While Tubbs lost his re-election in the city of Stockton in 2020, his work in public service — and in particular his fight to end poverty — has not ended. He is currently a special adviser for economic mobility and opportunity for Governor Gavin Newsom and is hard at work launching a new program called Ending Poverty in California (EPIC) that will aim to keep anti-poverty work in the state moving. He also recently released the memoir, The Deeper the Roots: A Memoir of Hope and Homewhich is a poignant and insightful look at how he persevered through poverty and racism to rise in the political ranks.

Fatherly and spoke to Tubbs, who is the father of a young son, about his parenting philosophy, the pandemic of poverty, the SEED program, and why he’s so angry the Child Tax Credit could end after one year.

The basic income program you piloted is so exciting because in America there’s so much resistance to simply giving people money. There’s so much pushback. As the results of the SEED program proved, it’s a stabilizing force and helps people considerably.

Yes. And so much of the findings from the basic income work were people talking about how they were able to parent. I think they said, “Oh wow.”

Thomas [who was a part of the SEED program], talked about how he was able not to work as much. He could be at home with his kids more. And he learned more about his kids. He learned that one of his kids liked science, and he had extra money, so he took her to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and bought her a telescope. He’d been living with her for 12 years and had no idea she had this aptitude for science because he was working all the time.

Other people talked about being less tired, less stressed, less anxious, less angry. I remember one mother talking about how she was able to buy a birthday cake for her son and how she said, “I know that’s not saving the money. I know it’s not the best use, but I felt proud that I was able to buy my son a birthday cake for his birthday.”

I think being a parent has made me a lot more emotional too. Because stuff like that really gets me now in a way it didn’t before. I’m like, you couldn’t buy a birthday cake?

The supplemental income the SEED program offered allowed her to provide something that so many might take for granted.

That’s the power of basic income — in terms of this notion of dignity. It allows people the opportunity to provide for and enjoy the people that they love, their families, and their communities.

The Child Tax Credit is not quite UBI, as it provides people with an advance of the money they are already due to receive at tax time. But it is a small step in the right direction and revelatory for many people. What do you think of it only being a program for one year?

It’s terrible. I’m actually really upset. Partly because I told people if the Child Tax Credit was extended permanently, my job was done, in terms of guaranteed income. It’s not for everyone, but it gets to families with kids. It’s a huge first step. Someone else could take the baton and keep the movement going.

Right.

But now it’s only a year. I can’t pass the baton just yet. But I would say it’s also an incredible step because when we started the guaranteed income program in Stockton, if you had told me in four years, we’d be at a point where it was acceptable to give families checks for having kids…? Before, the popular notion was welfare makes people have kids, so they stay on welfare. That was literally the whole welfare queen trope.

And now in 2021, we’re saying, “here’s $300 per kid.” I think it’s important to recognize that as progress, but also be frustrated that we know it works, it cuts child poverty. So why would we really only want to cut child poverty for one year? It’s crazy to me. When I think about some of the themes of my memoir, and particularly my mom and grandmother, I’m scared to imagine what an extra $600 a month would’ve meant for them.

They did an incredible job, but how much more could they have done? How less tired could they have been?

This reminds me of a moment in your book — you said that the current debate about poverty wasn’t about how we should fight it, but whether we should fight poverty at all. That’s a huge problem. Do you think that people will still be committed to fighting poverty beyond the pandemic?

I hope so. Poverty was a pandemic before the pandemic. My book is about the pandemic of poverty, and why I’m so angry because poverty’s no fun.

And you’re starting a new program in California called EPIC to do just that.

Yes, Ending Poverty in California. It’s to ensure that after this pandemic, poverty is top of mind for policymakers, for cultural influencers, for people at large. What are the ways in which we not only fight poverty with policy but also can we tell different stories about poverty? About people in poverty, and why people are in poverty? That’s my mission — to make sure that we don’t forget about poverty after this pandemic, but that we use the pandemic as a catalyst.

So practically, what will EPIC do?

It will do three things. It will convene researchers and practitioners to articulate the concrete policy steps we need to take to end poverty in California. It will, through the use of storytelling and art, do work on the narrative around poverty, so that we begin to see it as a collective failing, one we all should be fighting to address. And we’ll partner with elected officials, and those in poverty, to really create a political force that’s focused on addressing this issue. Like a constituency that looks at voting, that looks at electoral politics through the lens of which candidate’s going to be most committed to ending poverty? Which person’s going to be most committed to this issue? So very ambitious for sure. But it just feels very necessary in a natural next step.

Local and federal policy shaped your life. That really shone through your story. You write of moments where policy, like your grandfather’s pension, or your father’s incarceration, or the presence of the library, changed the trajectory of your childhood.

I think we lose sight of the ways in which policy impacts our lives, where decisions and laws made by other human beings dictate our lives. So, I was very deliberate and intentional about showing the ways in which policy can help. Like gifted and talented programs, military pensions, and private schools.

It also has the capacity to hurt. And we have to be cognizant of these things just didn’t happen. Like, all my successes “didn’t just happen” and all the difficult things that are difficult “didn’t just happen.” There was an underlying policy.

Speaking of policy, in a time when we are doing more for parents than we ever have, what more do you think working parents need? 

I didn’t really get [the need for paid leave] until I became a parent myself. I remember going back to work after paternity leave and telling my staff, I said, “You know what? We did [leave] out of intuition, but the goal of the government is to allow parents to be parents.”

At a very simple level, our governing frame is, “how do we allow the parents in this community to be parents?” And that’s why economic security is important. And that’s why basic income matters. That’s why the work we’re doing around education and school being a place for kids to learn is important. That’s why having conversations about childcare and childcare costs. All those policies I championed became even more salient through the lens of: How am I going to be able to parent this human being into being a good citizen?

What am I going to do to make sure this child is [healthy] in my care? That’s not to say that other people don’t matter, but it is to say that sort of community, civilization, this country only continues when people decide to parent.

When there’s another generation, the government needs to be organized around allowing it because the best parent for a child is a parent, right? So, the government needs to do a good job of allowing parents to parent. That was a huge shift in the policy frame for me. And it happened when I had my son. I was like, Oh my gosh. Yeah, let’s fix these parks. Parents need to be able to take their kids to the park for a couple of hours.

What’s the legacy you’re trying to leave for your kids?

A deep love for all people. A deep commitment to justice. And a fearlessness in terms of fighting for what’s right. I want to leave a legacy of joy, though. I don’t want it to be miserable. Like, “Oh, my dad was always upset because he was fighting all these crazy people and these crazy systems.”

I think Vice President Harris calls it being a “joyful warrior”. A legacy of joy, but also a legacy of humility, in that you’re not doing anyone a favor, you’re doing what you’re supposed to do. You’re doing what it means to be a good person. You’re doing what it means to kind of walk out this faith you’ve been raised in.

Finally, what is a general parenting philosophy you try to keep in mind?

I’m laughing because my wife is a researcher. She reads, she researches. And she’s like, “you just do stuff.” But I think my parenting philosophy is really one about cultivating and challenging, but not controlling. And it’s one of lots of love. My son’s probably the most cuddly being. I just hug him and hold him literally all day. It’s just love and security, but with discipline. Right? And you have to have a sense of boundaries. You have a sense of what’s appropriate, what’s not.

So, I think my philosophy is [about] how to raise a good human. How to raise just a very pleasant, good person, who’s well adjusted. How do we raise children that are thankful, but not entitled? Who is thankful for the life they get to live? Thank God I have a great partner.