Michael Tubbs on Structural Violence, UBI, and the Dignity of Work
During a full day of events, the millennial mayor of Stockton, California, inspired all he met with his determination to change the policies affecting the lives of the urban poor.
Michael Tubbs, the youngest and first African American mayor of Stockton, California, is no stranger to the challenges of poverty. On a daylong visit to the School of Social Work on April 18, he shared how the experience of being raised by a single mother had given him the drive to pursue a life of public service.
“Poverty wasn’t something I learned in college,” Tubbs said when delivered our School’s first-ever Alice P. Lin Memorial Lecture. “It was something I lived first; then I read about it.”
Tubbs’s lecture, titled “A House Built on a Firm Foundation: Economic Security and Basic Income,” marked the culmination of a whirlwind day that also included lunch with MSW students and an appearance on Just Societies LIVE, a weekly interview program broadcast on Facebook and produced by the School’s Communications office. The office arranged a special edition of the program for the mayor, with Professor Ester Fuchs from the School of International and Public Affairs as his interviewer. Formerly on the advisory team for Mayor Bloomberg, Fuchs is the author of a book on American mayors and money that references the example of Stockton.
The epitome of a young leader
Not even 30 years old, Tubbs’s rise has been breathtaking. By age 26, when he was elected mayor with an astounding 70 percent of the vote, he had already served four years on Stockton’s city council. His service on the council followed his graduation from Stanford in 2012. He had been the first in his family to attend college, earning an undergraduate degree in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity and a master’s in Policy, Leadership, and Organization Studies.
During college he even snagged coveted internships at Google and the Obama White House. (President Obama would endorse his mayoral run, as would Oprah Winfrey, swelling his victory to a landslide.) In high school, he got his first dose of local fame when he won an essay contest sponsored by Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, before graduating with a 4.4 grade point average. His essay, “Parents’ mistakes made me succeed”, was published in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Tubbs’s youthful demeanor—reinforced by a stylish, fitted business suit and tightly cropped fauxhawk—helped him connect with MSW students over lunch, as they discussed the intersection of social justice and public policy. Given the velocity of his own career, one might be surprised by his counsel to the students that they exercise patience with their own.
“Education, policy, immigration, domestic violence, child welfare, or healthcare?” asked Lizbeth Hernandez, listing the issues she has grown to care about while pursuing her MSW at Columbia. “Listening to Mayor Tubbs widened my perspective. I now think that I can work for all these issues. I don’t have to choose one over the other. I just have to be patient that I will be able to do the work I want to do.”
Formative idea: “Structural violence”
At the Lin Lecture later that day, Tubbs explained his approach to social and economic justice, and how the two are intertwined through “structural violence,” a term coined by Johan Galtung, the father of peace studies, to refer to social structures that harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs.
“The productivity, the creativity, the potential of our people are oftentimes harmed by economic issues that aren’t acts of god but acts of men. They are a product of policy decisions made over many, many years,” he told the Lin Lecture attendees. “They’ve created the conditions where folks are working incredibly hard and still cannot afford to pay rent. And it’s not just a fringe group, it’s not just ‘those people.’ It’s at least one in two Americans who can’t afford one $400 emergency.”
It’s this ethos of empathy that led Tubbs to think outside the box upon assuming office and responsibility for Stockton’s 310,000 citizens, 23 percent of whom live in poverty. With his innate understanding of how the feeling of economic insecurity can affect a person’s life, he instructed his staff to bring him the boldest policy interventions they could find to combat poverty. The team came back with a proposal for introducing a universal basic income (UBI) program to Stockton. At that moment, Tubbs recalled what Martin Luther King, Jr. had written in his 1967 book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?:
I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective—the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.
Formative idea: Universal basic income (UBI)
Universal basic income, also known as guaranteed basic income, citizen’s income and basic income, is a monthly distribution of cash to provide recipients an “economic floor.” The idea, which dates back to 18th-century France, has been floating around since the start of the American Republic. Although libertarians now embrace Thomas Paine, one of the fathers of the American Revolution, and his anti-government philosophy, Paine in fact also argues, in his political pamphlets of the 1790s, that a government should support its citizens when they are at their most vulnerable—particularly the young, the old, and the infirm.
Another conservative UBI proponent was the economist Milton Friedman, who in 1962 published a book that made the case for a minimum guaranteed income via a “negative income tax,” which he believed would help alleviate poverty.
On the other end of the political spectrum we have social welfare thinkers like Professor Irwin Garfinkel, currently serving as our School’s Interim Dean. Garfinkel participated in the wave of UBI research in the 1960s and continues to advocate for the policy, as he explains in this interview with Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes.
Hughes talked to Garfinkel because of his passionate interest in UBI. Since leaving Facebook, he has become one of the leading philanthropic supporters of research into the benefits of giving people cash. He co-founded the Economic Security Project and also wrote a book on the topic, Fair Shot: Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn. Garfinkel invited Hughes to speak about the book at last year’s New Frontiers in Poverty Research Conference, an event that is held every year by the Center on Poverty and Social Policy, run by Garfinkel and one of our school’s research scientists, Dr. Chris Wimer.
Meanwhile, UBI has found some traction in Europe, particularly in the Nordic countries. In January 2017 Finland became the first European country to introduce a UBI pilot, which wrapped last year. Results were mixed: participants experienced a greater measure of well-being—but were not more likely to find work—than those in the control group.
But the idea hasn’t gone away. Notably, the Green New Deal, released in February of this year, includes a UBI proposal.
Formative idea: “Dignity of work”
Tubbs said he believes in the potential for UBI not only to relieve poverty but also to provide the working poor some measure of dignity. The concept of the “dignity of work” is a theme he returned to again and again during his day-long visit to the School of Social Work. “I think it’s immoral. I think folks are working and the work isn’t giving them the dignity that comes with knowing that at the end of the month their necessities will be paid for.”
Tubbs said he also knew that giving away free money wouldn’t be an easy feat in Stockton, which only five years ago declared bankruptcy. While chairing the Audit and Legislative Committee as a city councilman, Tubbs led the way in helping the city to recover from fiscal mismanagement.
Once he became mayor, however, Tubbs said he almost felt destined to launch the first municipal-level universal basic income (UBI) pilot in the United States. A week after his staff raised the idea of UBI, he had a chance meeting with a staff member from Hughes’s network, the Economic Security Project, who told him of their mission to support programs in the United States for unconditional cash and basic income, and said they were looking for a pilot city. With philanthropic funding, Stockton’s pilot UBI went into effect in February of this year, providing 130 households $500 per month for 18 months.
It’s of course too early to evaluate the impact, but predictably, the program is not without its detractors. They are framing the Mayor’s bold decision in the way social welfare policies are so often framed—as a radical policy of free handouts to the financially irresponsible. Tubbs said he is fascinated by this idea that “a possible solution is more radical than the problem it’s trying to solve.”
“The fundamental issue is not that people don’t know how to manage money. I think the issue is that people don’t have money to manage,” he told the Lin Lecture audience. “You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don’t have boots.”