The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The bold new campaign to ‘End Poverty in California’

Michael Tubbs has launched a statewide campaign to stamp out poverty after the success of a guaranteed income program while he was mayor of Stockton, Calif. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

This month, former Stockton, Calif., mayor Michael Tubbs launched a campaign as bold as it is straightforward: End Poverty in California (EPIC).

The campaign shares its name with a movement led by Upton Sinclair during his 1934 run for California governor. In his novel “The Jungle,” Sinclair observed: “The rich people not only had all the money, they had all the chance to get more; they had all the knowledge and the power, and so the poor man was down, and he had to stay down.”

This dynamic persists to this day. Tubbs, who grew up in poverty before becoming Stockton’s mayor at just 26, calls it “the setup.” The “setup” traps people in poverty by design, through “separate and unequal schools, lack of health care infrastructure, no good jobs, prohibitively expensive higher education, over-policing” and much more.

The setup’s results? Veterans freezing on our streets, diabetics forgoing insulin due to skyrocketing prices, and millions working two or three jobs while remaining in poverty. These deplorable conditions are not inevitable; they are created by an unjust system.

We can fix that system — if we choose to do so. Just this past year, the number of Americans below the poverty line fell by nearly 45 percent as a result of coronavirus relief bills like the American Rescue Plan. (With Congress allowing benefits such as the child tax credit expire, that number is already going back up.) Such results raise the question: If we can cut poverty by 45 percent, why not shoot for 100 percent?

That might sound unsustainably expensive. But many key steps wouldn’t cost anything. Tubbs’s first move at EPIC was to release a white paper by David Grusky, the director of Stanford’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, outlining a meticulously researched poverty-eradication strategy.

The first step — “upset the setup” — is about redistributing power. Actions such as expanding leave policies, legislating penalties for wage theft, streamlining affordable housing permits and enfranchising workers with the right to organize would curb exploitation and put power back in working people’s hands — without costing the state a dime.

Tubbs acknowledges, however, that we can’t stop at fixing the system: We must also ameliorate harms it has already caused, particularly for people of color. Even a level playing field wouldn’t be fair in a world where the median net worth of a Black household in Los Angeles, for example, is roughly 1 percent of the median White household. So Tubbs has two transformative ideas to address historic inequity: guaranteed income programs and baby bonds.

In recent years, the idea of a guaranteed income has gained steam among politicians and the public — but it has mostly remained just that: an idea. Tubbs has actually made it work.

As Stockton mayor, Tubbs initiated the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, which provided 125 residents with $500 per month for two years — the first state-funded guaranteed income program in any U.S. city. Recipients reported less income volatility and improved physical and emotional well-being. Their full-time employment increased from 28 percent to 40 percent, as people could give up restrictive part-time jobs and use that time to find better full-time work. And participants spent supplemental cash on necessities such as food, transportation and utilities. These results inspired 60 other mayors and counting to advocate for guaranteed income as a tool to eliminate poverty, with about half launching pilots in their own cities.

In an era of gridlocked politics, this is the path to systemic change: proving a concept in a city, then in many cities, then — as Tubbs is doing — in a state, and finally throughout the country.

Baby bond programs set aside funds for children (usually at birth) to accumulate interest until they become adults. Pilot programs in Connecticut and New York City don’t have results yet, because we won’t see the full impact until children turn 18 years old. But Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) have introduced legislation to create a federally funded baby bond program — and research shows their proposal alone could nearly eliminate the racial wealth gap among young adults. Imagine how that could change this country’s promise: allowing all Americans to begin adulthood not with crushing debt but with resources to build a stable, productive future.

But to make these transformative policies a reality, we must end the insidious narrative that, as Tubbs puts it, “blames people for their struggles — labeling them as lazy, corrupt, unintelligent or worse — and deems them undeserving of our trust, our investment or even their own dignity.”

Tubbs has made advances in California to change that narrative. This past week the California State Assembly announced a Select Committee on Poverty and Economic Inclusion, an idea Tubbs had reportedly pitched to Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon. It will examine the root causes of poverty — in other words, “the setup” — based in part on the testimony of people living in it.

As Nelson Mandela said, “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the action of human beings.” Poverty is not an individual choice, but it is a collective choice. And just as we choose to perpetuate it, we can choose to abolish it.