In February 2019, then-Stockton Mayor Michael D. Tubbs launched the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (‘SEED’), a 24-month guaranteed income initiative, the first mayor-led initiative of the sort in the US. Two years later, the preliminary results from the first twelve months of the experiment (through to February 2020, before the pandemic) have been released and the key findings are positive with the guaranteed income reducing income volatility, enabling access to full-time work, improving mental health and allowing better control over one’s time and decisions.

Program design

Under the SEED program, 125 Stockton residents were randomly selected to receive $500 per month for two years with no conditions attached to the handout and limited eligibility criteria namely: being at least 18 years old, being a Stockton resident and living in a neighbourhood at or below the median income ($46,003 in Stockton). A control group of 200 individuals meeting those same criteria was also established for research purposes.

The experiment is funded with private donations including a $1 million grant from the Economic Security Project, an initiative that aims at “making the economy work again for all Americans” with a specific focus on guaranteed income and anti-monopoly action. 

The program is being evaluated by two researchers, Dr. Stacia Martin-West of the University of Tennessee, and Dr. Amy Castro Baker of the University of Pennsylvania under a ‘mixed-methods approach’ consisting in both a quantitative and qualitative analysis of data collected before and during the experiment. The data was collected through both surveys and in-person or group interviews (participation in the experiment was not conditional on participating in these interviews).

The experiment was designed in close cooperation with public authorities and community members to tailor it to local specificities (disbursement timing and mechanism for instance) and to build trust between recipients, control group members and SEED staff. This work was necessary to address initial concerns around the unconditional and guaranteed nature of the income (considered ‘too good to be true’) and the risk of loss of eligibility for other benefits (covered through specific work by the Economic Security Project).

Key findings

The preliminary results show that recipients made rational decisions about the income they were receiving, mostly spending it on ‘necessities’ (food, utilities, auto care). The researchers also found positive spillover effects with recipients being able to assist people in their extended networks more. Recipients also faced less income volatility and, noticeably, reported being more able to face unexpected expenses with cash or a cash-equivalent than before.

The guaranteed income gave recipients more time to engage in meaningful activities (socialising, spending time with children). This, according to the researchers, highlights how “financial scarcity generates time scarcity”. Participants also reported improvements in mental health when members of the control group did not experience the same improvements. Participants also reported improvements in mental health compared to the baseline measures when members of the control group did not experience the same improvements.

Finally, the program also resulted in an increase in full-time employment. 28% of recipients had a full-time job at the beginning of the project. After a year that proportion had risen to 40% (in the control group the proportion only moved from 32% to 37%). Some individuals indicated that the guaranteed income allowed them time to train or complete a degree or simply gave them more confidence to apply for certain positions.

Reactions

Reactions to the release of the study have been positive with the findings seen as further evidence that these programs do not remove incentives to work and that, as the researchers put it, “poverty results from a lack of cash, not of character” making cash transfers an effective way of addressing poverty (the researchers as well as Mayor Tubbs are quick to point out however that these cash transfers cannot be the only solution to the issues faced by residents of a city such as Stockton).

On the other hand some have pointed out that SEED remains a small-scale and relatively short experiment and have cautioned about drawing conclusions too rapidly from the study. Another limitation of the study is that tracking of expenses from the guaranteed income relied on recipients collaborating with the researchers (the income was transferred to a prepaid debit card to be used directly and through which researchers had access to spending records, or to be withdrawn as cash or to another account. In those cases, about 40% of the recipients, researchers had to conduct specific surveys). Finally, some critics have used the fact that the experiment was being privately funded to argue that basic income was too expensive for public authorities.

Regardless, these results are sure to add to the growing debate about basic income in the US. Other experiments are ongoing, and in June 2020, Michael Tubbs and the Economic Security Project founded Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, a network of around 40 mayors across the US working on implementing guaranteed-income experiments in their cities.

https://www.stocktondemonstration.org/

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About Pierre Piquemal

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