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© US National Archives


An Increasingly Compelling Case for UBI

by Sukhi Samra
May 22, 2020

This interview with Sukhi Samra, the Director of Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), was conducted by Chiara Towne for franknews.  

Chiara Towne | Can you start by telling us about SEED and what your role is?

Sukhi Samra | SEED is the nation's first mayor-led guaranteed income initiative. In February of 2019 we started giving 125 randomly selected Stocktonians $500 a month for 18 months. The cash is unconditional; there are no strings attached, no work requirements. Our program has three main components: research, storytelling and community engagement.

On the research front, we're being evaluated by Dr Station Martin West at the University of Tennessee and Amy Castro Baker at the University of Pennsylvania. The key research question is: how does a guaranteed income impact income volatility? One, does it help stabilize the amount of cash and money folks are bringing in per month, and, two, how do changes in income volatility impact physical and emotional wellbeing? So looking at the impact that unconditional cash has on anxiety and stress and happiness, and how much time folks were able to spend with their kids, et cetera.

On the storytelling front, we are really committed to making sure that the people who are telling the stories are the folks who have the lived experiences of financial insecurity. To that end, we have a storytelling cohort of recipients who, prior to COVID, had opten into doing interviews talking about their experience with seed.

On the community engagement front, one of our core ethos is, this is a project with Stockton, not on Stockton. So really trying to reverse the history of the ways in which research and demonstration projects tend to be exploitative and extractive and really trying to make sure that this is a conversation that we're having with the community. My job as a director is to sort of oversee all of that.Screen Shot 2020 05 22 at 10.45.46 AMJovan Bravo and his wife. Photo courtesy of SEED. 

Got it. So why did you guys choose to do a random selection rather than say, lowest possible income or something like that?

Sure. So our selection process and criteria were actually determined by a deep community engagement process. Again, going back to this is with Stockton, not on Stockton. We officially announced SEED back in October of 2017. Immediately afterwards we launched into a design phase during which one thing we did was hold town halls and meetings with the whole sort of diverse representation of Stockton's constituents. We met with nonprofit leaders, community leaders, other elected officials, and residents to understand what they thought a guaranteed income pilot in Stockton should look like. Through the town halls that we held, there were three common design ideals that we were hearing. 

One was that whoever we select ultimately should be diverse and representative of Stockton. US News named Stockton one of the most diverse cities in America just a couple of months ago. So we really wanted whoever ultimately ended up receiving the money to capture that diversity. Because we do truly believe that diversity is our greatest asset.

Two, we heard folks wanting to make sure that the selection process was fair, especially because it's a city with a lot of need. About a quarter of our 315,00 residents live in poverty and we are 18th in the nation for child poverty. We were only going to select 125 folks so it was important that the selection process ultimately felt fair to everyone.

The third ideal that was echoed across everyone we were talking to was maximizing our ability to learn. So especially amongst the nonprofit leaders a lot of people recognized the unique potential that SEED had to really reverse the conversation. If Stockton was known at all, it was known because it was the first city to declare bankruptcy. It was known because it had really high crime rates and homicide rates. I think we expected to gain some national traction, I don't think we could have anticipated the amount of national traction that we actually gained. Folks really recognize that SEED was putting Stockton the map. And so there was a sentiment of let's make sure that out of this demonstration we have lessons that we can share with the rest of the world.

So the way that we operationalized that was a random selection and doing a robust RCT, a randomized controlled trial. Because we did an RCT, we have a treatment group and a control group which really allows us to provide foundational knowledge around a guaranteed income.

Because it is an RCT, folks are randomly selected. So no one can say Mayor Tubbs hand-selected these people. We had toyed between a signup process, but we decided against it. Signup processes aren't necessarily the most equitable. It's oftentimes contingent upon who is able to hear the news, who has access to a computer to sign up, or who has access to transportation to sign up at a community center. So that would not meet our diverse and representative ideal. Folks had to be 18 years of age or older and they had to live in a neighborhood where the median household income was $46,000, which is Stockton's area median income. So we were casting a wide and diverse net across the city, but still reaching those in need.

So why is it important or what made you choose to have a monthly, rather than say a quarterly infusion of cash or even a yearly one?

We were again, really driven to understand how guaranteed income can stabilize income volatility with the rise of the gig economy and the decline in worker protections.

What we have seen and what we continue to see is that a household is no longer able to reliably predict what they're bringing in on a monthly basis. Sometimes it's way more, sometimes it's way less depending on other factors. For example, if they're in the gig economy, it depends on how many meals they're able to get through Door Dash. So in order to answer our research question, we wanted to provide something on a monthly basis that provided folks with a reliable income floor. A monthly distribution is actually a core tenant of UBI. We see lump sum distributions at a federal level sometimes with things like the EOTC, so this model really gives us the chance to examine how it changes month to month income volatility.

I wanted to ask what you thought about McConnell and the legislation that's just come through in the crisis funds for the country being based on 2018 tax returns, given what you've just said. So many Americans now having such volatile year to year income, do you have a better benchmark or a suggestion than tax returns?

So the economic security projects, emergency money to the people has a couple of different suggestions. I think even beyond just using the 2018 and 2019 sort of tax filing,we should be looking at the frequency. When we look at the conversation that's happening at the national level, it's still heavily revolved around a one time stimulus versus a recurring stimulus. Again, going back to our ethos, it is important to make sure that distributions are recurring and predictable. The CARE Act only gave $1,200. For most folks, that is not enough to cover rent for even one month during this crisis. So going forward, our advocacy goals, in partnership with the Mayor's office and in partnership with The Economic Security Project, revolve primarily around making sure that we're moving towards a recurring and monthly payment.

When you say we, do you mean on a national level?

Yes, on a national level.

So this project is clearly really unique and very forward thinking, but, as you said, it still has certain limitations. It is only going on for two years and only going to 125 people. How do you work within those limitations to come up with advocacy that you can get behind?

That is exactly why research and storytelling are embedded in our program design. In October 2019, we released a data dashboard that has data on spending as well as demographic information on who our cohort is.Screen Shot 2020 05 22 at 10.31.21 AM

That sort of goes in the face of everything that research typically is. With most research studies, you first have a preliminary findings report and then you have a final findings report.

But we recognize that the conversation around SEED and guaranteed income is happening in a unique political moment where these conversations around economic inequality are really picking up steam. We wanted to make sure that we were able to share our data along the way.

And our data largely proves what other unconditional and conditional cash transfer research studies have show previously. Which is that when you give people money, they are going to spend it on the things that they need most. The data that we released back in October showed that folks are largely spending their guaranteed income on food, utilities, and auto care, basic everyday things that anyone would spend their money on. Our research is ongoing; the preliminary findings don't come out until later this year, and our final findings will come out sort of April 2021. That's where storytelling comes in play, and that's why it's really important to us that the folks who are talking about SEED are those who have the lived experience of receiving guaranteed income.

Since we launched, we've seen the discourse seismically shift in the ways in which guaranteed income is being talked about. And we saw that even before COVID. Part of that, of course, is due to the presidential candidates. But there is also work happening in Jackson, Mississippi with the Magnolia Mother's Trust, which is giving a guaranteed income of a thousand dollars to single black mothers. On a state level, Governor Newsom more than doubled the state's AITC and Senator Harris proposed the LIFT act or Representative Tlaib proposing the BOOST Act. We had really seen a shift in the way that people were talking about the feasibility of a guaranteed income, and I think the current reality has only amplified that.

Mayor Tubbs was more supportive of Senator Harris's LIFT proposal than he was of Andrew Yang's Freedom Dividend? Why is that and what does that tell us about different UBI models?

As a 501c3, we are not allowed to take position on either, but I will lay out the differences. The key difference in the way that Andrew Yang's Freedom Dividend would work, as it was being espoused on the national presidential stage, is that it would have replaced other benefits. Folks would have had to choose between receiving benefits like food stamps, CalWORKs, et cetera, or the guaranteed income.

For us, it's really about making sure that our current social safety net and basic income are working in tandem, and making sure that basic income isn't replacing the social safety net.

SEED obviously is going to be affected by what's happening nationally and by there being other infusions of cash. Do you feel that you need to make any changes in how you're analyzing either your data or in any other way that you're having conversations with the recipients?

Sure. We've internally talked about that. Obviously we are doing a research study in the middle of a pandemic and that will affect the ways in which our research is interacting with the current state of affairs. We will be analyzing the data pre pandemic separately and then data post pandemic. We have a year of disbursements pre COVID, and then we will have a couple of months of disbursements during COVID. Our team will be trying to parse out if there are any differences between those two. And we will do qualitative interviews to understand how folks have experienced COVID and what difference a guaranteed income has made, and we will be able to do those interviews both with our treatment group and our control group.

In a sense, I would think that actually is a really unique opportunity because you can look at an emergency situation which you might not otherwise have been able to do.

Exactly, making the best of the worst case scenario, SEED is perfectly positioned to really understand the effects of an unconditional cash transfer during a pandemic, especially as the conversation around emergency cash stimulus is happening at the national scale. We are incredibly grateful to have this opportunity to understand what it means.

But obviously that comes while recognizing that a lot of our folks are incredibly hard hit hard. A lot of our recipients are immunocompromised, others are elder and are not going out currently, some have lost their jobs already during the pandemic. When we are having these national conversations around folks who are left out and folks who are disproportionately impacted, those are the folks in Stockton and those are the folks in SEED. And so the research definitely provides us a unique opportunity to really dive into those experiences.

Totally. I am really appreciative of all of the specifics that you're giving me and I wanted to know if we could have switched the conversation to talk a little bit about the broader concepts behind giving out money in America. Obviously, we're a hyper individualistic nation to begin with. I personally have found it really fascinating that a lot of the conservative pushback against the UBI has accused it of almost being a paternalistic idea or program. How do you respond to that? How do you feel about it in a more kind of thematic, broader context in the country?

I would actually disagree entirely that it is paternalistic. Especially relative to the social safety net and all the ways in which our system is super paternalistic. One recipient specifically spoke about how during her experience rectifying CalWORKs she was asked - when was the last time that you slept with your child's father. That is incredibly invasive and incredibly paternalistic. When we are talking about unconditional basic income and unconditional cash and what we are talking about is giving people the money and letting them do however they wish with it.

Unconditional cash transfers and conditional cash transfers are internationally one of the most effective, and studied anti-poverty mechanisms.

Over and over again, we see that when you give people cash, they spend it on the things that they need most. And at SEED, I think partly because we are led by a young black mayor who has these lived poverty experiences, we have not shied away from calling out the racist and gender stereotypes that often go into the ways in which we regulate welfare. There is such a stigma around welfare because we have racialized it, and attacked it with gender stereotypes that are unfair in the first place. It is important to not be afraid to have those candid conversations.

cassandraCassandra Gonzales and her son. Photo courtesy of SEED. 

I would love to know if there's anything that you don't normally get the chance to talk about that you would like to talk about.

One of the reasons that SEED has really been effective in the way we have been able to maintain trust with our recipients is the one on one human contact that we've been able to provide them. Of course, part of the reason we're able to do that is because we are working with 200 people in our control group amongst three staff members. But one of the things that we hear over and over again from our recipients is that they're really grateful that when they call, someone picks up or when they text, they get a text back. It is helped in generating trust with our folks and has helped us in our research efforts.

We are currently thinking through how we take this away as a lesson for policy at large and how can we operationalize that for policy at a federal level, especially given the scale is a lot bigger. How can we make sure that in an age of social media and increased sort of hiding behind our computers, how do democratize human contact and make sure that everyone is able to like have their voices heard?

I really look forward to seeing what you guys come up with. I think, it's a time when we're all understanding that human contact is the driving force in our daily lives.