STOCKTON, Calif. — When this Central Valley city of 300,000, far removed from the wealth and coastal vibes of the Bay Area, became the first in the country to try out what it called a “guaranteed income” program in 2017, it became a nationwide sensation.

Michael Tubbs, the mayor who brought the program to the area, appeared on national television programs to extol its virtues. Tech moguls toured the city. An HBO documentary was released.

It was a rare bit of shine for this dusty agricultural hub, last seen in the national news for the distinction as the largest city to go bankrupt after the Great Recession.

Now it was the first American city in decades to take the buzzy idea for a basic income and bring it into the real world, as a potential remedy to the country’s growing inequality.

Three years — and one pandemic — later, the Stockton experience offers lessons on the promises of the policy and its limitations. The idea of a universal basic income — that every citizen receives a regular, unconditional cash payment from the government — is gaining traction worldwide, including in the United States, where it is buoyed in part by the federal stimulus measures that are credited with softening the blow of the economic crisis of 2020. On the local level, the concept of a basic income is being explored in more than 40 cities, such as St. Paul, Minn.; Gary, Ind.; and Atlanta, with more than a dozen pursuing pilot programs.

For the Stockton participants, the program appears to have been a success. A recent study by researchers who helped design the program found that full-time employment levels increased among the group of people who received the money. Mental and emotional health improved as well, the researchers found.

But the program was just a shadow of what UBI proponents, such as former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, believe is possible. It was not universal: Only 125 people participated, and it did not offer a full income, but rather $500 per month in cash. The program ended without a replacement.

And Tubbs, who earned so many plaudits for the effort, was voted out of office in November, losing by more than 10 points to a Republican amid criticism of how he managed larger issues in the city, such as homelessness and crime.

Tubbs said he thinks the program was also a target of criticism because basic income challenges national myths about work and value.

“The notion of providing an income floor forces people to reckon with the fact that it’s not true that all you have to do is work hard to make it in this country,” he said. “There’s people that work two to three jobs and can’t pay rent. It really brings up uncomfortable notions about the economy and how the economy works.”

Now, the question of whether giving people cash is sensible policy is increasingly debated. Beyond handing out stimulus checks, President Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package created an expanded program of cash grants to families and the working poor that some liberal Democrats want to make permanent.

But the program will last only one year, and it’s unclear whether Biden will get the support in Congress to expand it. Unrestricted cash assistance for the poor, once known as welfare, largely ended in the late 1990s in a bipartisan agreement that reflected concerns that it dissuaded people from working.

And the experiences of Stockton and other places suggest that although much political fanfare accompanies short-time efforts to expand payments, particularly to the vulnerable, sustaining such programs is highly challenging.

“There’s been a lot of evidence both here and abroad that things like direct cash payments ... are politically much more effective than the other techniques traditionally used,” said William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. But, he added, “there are limits. You can’t just keep on doing this forever. It certainly isn’t going to be a steady diet.”

‘Out of white papers and into the real lived experience’

At first glance, Stockton might seem like an unlikely place for a social experiment at the vanguard of political thought.

Situated where the outer reaches of the Bay Area meet the more conservative, rural counties of the San Joaquin Valley, the city never has been considered a political bellwether in the state.

But the prosperity of its coastal neighbors has not materialized here, despite some hopes that tech start-ups would see potential in Stockton, which is an hour and a half away from the inner Bay Area and boasts notably less expensive housing.

Poverty levels here are nearly twice the national average, and homelessness has surged in recent years, evident in makeshift tent and RV encampments that line the city’s riverfront.

The guaranteed income program was the result of chance.

Tubbs, then 26 and the youngest mayor of any comparably sized city in the country, found himself sitting next to Natalie Foster, the co-founder of the Economic Security Project, an anti-poverty nonprofit organization with tech money, at a conference in San Francisco in 2017.

The mayor had read about basic income in the writings of Martin Luther King Jr. as a college student at Stanford University. And he was informed by his experience growing up in the city with a single mother who struggled while juggling jobs in retail and health care to support the family.

Foster’s organization was looking for a place to test the idea, to “get it out of white papers and into the real lived experience,” she said.

A match was made.

“My governing philosophy is sort of different than most elected leaders: I believe in moving with a coalition of the willing,” Tubbs said. “I thought there was consensus [that] what we were doing on poverty wasn’t working for the city. So I took that as a mandate to figure out what can we do to make it better.”

The program, which was funded with $1 million from the Economic Security Project and an additional $3 million that the organization and Tubbs raised from donors, was designed with the help of two professors, Amy Castro Baker at the University of Pennsylvania and Stacia West at the University of Tennessee, to be a research experiment.

Organizers sent mailers to 4,200 households in neighborhoods where the average income was less than $46,000; 125 of the people who responded were chosen to be part of it, receiving $500 a month for two years.

Many were so confused by the offer of no-strings-attached money that they thought it was probably a scam.

Media access to the participants was tightly controlled. Still, a wave of positive news coverage followed.

Locally, too, Tubbs earned accolades from people who had been working in the fight against poverty in Stockton for decades.

Anecdotes about the results trickled in to his office through the nonprofit organization that was running the program.

“We’d hear stories about people using the money to find full-time work, buy dentures, take care of their families, take care of other people,” Tubbs said. “I went from someone who was skeptically optimistic to being a full-blown evangelist.”

But it also opened him up to criticism — that he was in it more for his national political standing than addressing real issues in the city on a wide scale.

An old idea becomes new again

In the United States, a debate about guaranteed income has come up periodically since the 1960s, only to be jettisoned for a less ambitious and more politically palatable alternative.

The idea has found a renaissance in recent years, in countries such as Finland, India and Kenya, as inequality has worsened and, in more industrialized countries, fears grow about the shift to automation. And in the United States, it received a boost during the 2020 presidential primaries, helping to power Yang’s upstart campaign.

But it took the coronavirus pandemic to truly underscore the potential of cash assistance.

Former president Donald Trump was one of the main cheerleaders for more — and bigger — stimulus payments after attaching his name to the first round of checks, for $1,200, in March 2020. By the end of the year, about two dozen House Republicans lined up to support another round of payments, challenging the GOP’s traditional aversion to social welfare spending.

“The experience of the pandemic and the programs adopted to address it — particularly the cash aid — have really opened up this space to much more unconditional forms of aid,” said Marshall Steinbaum, an economist at the University of Utah. “It totally rejects the conventional wisdom in policy circles since the 1990s that if the government wants to help everyone, it has to be very selective in who gets help and very onerous in the requirements.”

Yang puts it in simpler terms.

“The cash worked,” he said in an interview. “It stimulated the economy; it kept millions of households afloat; and the benefits were clear to both individuals and families and economists who were scared stiff of the consequences of the massive layoffs.”

In Brazil, basic income ideas have been bubbling for more than 20 years, but like in the United States, it took a pandemic — and a right-wing populist leader facing heat amid a crisis — to implement the policy on the national scale, temporarily.

The Brazilian government distributed $52 billion to nearly 68 million people in the country last year who were either out of work, informal workers or extremely poor, about $107 a month per person, and more for single mothers.

The effort helped boost President Jair Bolsonaro’s political ratings even as the coronavirus battered the nation.

But the country also showed a shortcoming with such programs. When the funding ran out, poor households were thrown back into turmoil.

“It guaranteed a minimum of dignity for many people,” Josiani Salinos, a community leader in southern Brazil, said in an interview. “Now, we see how much we miss emergency aid. People are selling their personal belongings, such as televisions and refrigerators, on the streets.”

Other mayors join the bandwagon, unconcerned about political risks

The program in Stockton ended in January and many participants — at least those who are permitted by the nonprofit organization that ran the program to speak to reporters — say it changed their lives.

Lorrine Paradela, 46, a single mother, said the money allowed her to quit the second job she worked on top of her full-time position, working with special needs children in schools.

She also said she has more peace of mind, knowing that when unexpected expenses come up, she’ll be better prepared.

“Before, my brain just kept working all the time. Even though all my bills were paid and we had food, you always think about the next month coming,” she said.

Tomas Vargas Jr., 35, a father of two, said the money enabled him to look more aggressively for a full-time job, while working part-time at UPS. About a year and a half into the program, Vargas was offered a full-time job, at a local nonprofit organization, Fathers and Families of San Joaquin, and he credits the program.

“For what I was being paid, if I would risk taking the day off and then do an interview — and then say if I didn’t get the job or it wasn’t assured I would have the job — I wouldn’t be able to risk it, because I’d lose all my income,” Vargas said.

But the program holds some cautionary lessons despite these successes.

Tubbs was attacked ruthlessly as being in it for himself by the 209Times, a local blog that has a has a far bigger following on most social media channels than the local newspaper.

The blog pointed to the income program, among many other issues, to raise doubts about Tubbs’s integrity — claiming that he used the project to help drum up support for his own ambitions. Founder Motecuzoma Sanchez has told reporters that the site is not run as journalism but denies that the information he puts out is untrue. Sanchez did not respond to a request for comment.

The program in Stockton also may have been a victim of its modesty; with only 125 participants, there wasn’t a large enough pool of beneficiaries to generate a base of support.

“I think Tubbs felt like he was riding a high and beautiful wave and that his work with UBI [and] also other programs would speak for themselves,” Stockton Record columnist Michael Fitzgerald said. “He underestimated that if there’s a bad narrative out there, no matter how fraudulent it is, if there’s no counternarrative, people are going to believe it.”

The number of mayors who have started similar programs in the past year has grown sharply, indicating that other officials think the programs are worth a try.

“This type of policy is only controversial in the halls of government, in city hall, in the capitals, in Washington, D.C.,” said Melvin Carter, the first Black mayor of St. Paul, which began a program last year. “Meanwhile, just about every resident knows that if it’s not them, they know somebody who needs cash right now. Sure, there will be people who don’t like it. Anything we do that’s big, impactful and changes the status quo, there will be somebody who doesn’t like it."

Tubbs now runs the group Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, which is organizing a growing number of mayors such as Carter who are testing the program in their cities, with the help of more than $18 million in donations from Twitter founder Jack Dorsey.

Last month, he was named a special economic adviser to California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), a position in which he will help the state explore cash payment programs, as well as other anti-poverty proposals.

“It’s risky when you’re the first; when you’re the 45th, it’s not that risky,” he said. “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitably.”

Rosenberg reported from Stockton. Stein reported from Washington, D.C. Traiano reported from Rio de Janeiro.