In 2019, Stockton, California Mayor Michael Tubbs started a guaranteed income experiment, giving $500 a month to randomly selected residents. The stipend improved participants’ job prospects and financial stability — and reduced their depression and anxiety.

Tomás Vargas, SEED participant. Credit: Akintunde Ahmad

For 18 months, from February 2019 through most of the pandemic’s first year, Tomás Vargas was part of an economic experiment in Stockton, California. A pilot program called SEED offered a guaranteed monthly income to its participants, and the 36-year-old father of two was among those receiving a $500 monthly stipend. The program aimed to provide an economic boost, but what Vargas noticed most was the change in his mental health that came from SEED’s most precious gift: time to bond with his family.a

“I started changing my mentality to believe in myself, started believing that I could do things,” said Vargas, who wore a small golden cross and an indigenous bead necklace over his white T-shirt when we met in a parking lot near his job. “And then I opened my eyes to my family.” 

For 18 months, from February 2019 through most of the pandemic’s first year, Tomas Vargas was part of an economic experiment in Stockton, California. A pilot program called SEED offered a guaranteed monthly income to its participants, and the 36-year-old father of two was among those receiving a $500 monthly stipend. The program aimed to provide an economic boost, but what Vargas noticed most was the change in his mental health that came from SEED’s most precious gift: time to bond with his family.

Prior to taking part in the SEED program, Vargas was working as a part time supervisor with UPS, struggling to make ends meet while living paycheck to paycheck. He was in the onboarding process of starting a new job at the airport, but the Covid 19 pandemic ended that prospect. Getting the extra $500 a month enabled him to take days off from UPS and pursue new opportunities. He also cut back on his side hustle working on cars and spent more time with his children, aged 6 and 7. To Vargas, it felt as if he were getting to know them for the first time. 

Tomás Vargas, pre-pandemic. Credit: SEED

“I know things that they love, and they’re their own little people,” he says. “I know what challenges they have. They’re amazing. And I wouldn’t have seen that before. I was too tired and too busy. Just didn’t have time for my kids, and SEED offered me mental relief to see that.” 

The Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration — SEED for short –was the brainchild of Michael Tubbs, a Stanford University graduate who, in 2016, was elected the town’s first African American mayor and, at 26, its youngest. He saw a regular income as a way to provide some stability and ease to residents of an economically distressed city. 

A decade earlier, Stockton was the foreclosure capital of the nation, a place where, from 2013-2017, nearly 10% of Stockton residents didn’t even have a bank account. Tubbs knew that more than half of Americans don’t have enough cash to cover a $500 emergency, and he believed that putting money in people’s pockets could make a difference. To qualify, recipients had to be at least 18 years old, reside in Stockton, and live in a neighborhood with a median household income at or below the citywide median of $46,033. Funding for the program came from private donors and organizations, not city taxes or government entities.

A year into the program, an evaluation by independent researchers funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that people receiving the stipend were more likely to have found full-time work than those who weren’t.  They also experienced better mental health and well-being. 

In a 25-page preliminary analysis on SEED’s first year, Stacia West, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee College of Social Work, and Amy Castro Baker, as assistant professor in the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania found recipients benefitted from reduced income volatility and better job prospects. 

At the one-year mark, the percentage of people receiving cash payments who had full-time jobs had climbed from 28% to 40%, compared with a 5% increase among those who weren’t in the program. The recipients of the stipends were also healthier, had lower levels of anxiety and depression, and “experienced clinically and statistically significant improvements in their mental health that the control group did not,” the researchers found.

To many, the idea of giving residents free money with no strings attached or work requirements sounds radical because it would cost taxpayers too much money and encourage people to leave their jobs and stop working. Neera Tanden, former head of the left-leaning Center for American Progress and now a senior adviser to President Biden, said exactly that, tweeting her opposition to a universal basic income, or UBI, in 2017.

Tubbs argues that several large studies dispute those positions. The initial results of the SEED evaluation “countered decades of false narratives that unconditional cash enables laziness and prolongs unemployment,” he wrote in a recent essay

Providing a guaranteed income that recipients can spend however they see fit has emerged as a possible solution to systemic poverty and rising inequality around the globe, studied by Stanford’s Basic Income Lab and espoused by Andrew Yang in his unsuccessful campaigns for president and New York mayor.  Still, a narrow majority of Americans oppose the idea, according to a 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center.

Tubbs says the initiative has also had an “incredible” impact on participants’ mental health. “Going into the program, I assumed we’d see the financial results – it’s just common sense that giving people money is going to help with things like saving and paying down debt. But I was not expecting the tremendous intangible results in terms of mental health.” 

Universal income improved adult mental health in Manitoba, Canada, and pushed down rates of psychiatric and substance abuse disorder among Cherokee Indian children whose families receive guaranteed income in the form of tribal cash transfers, according to a recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics. One way guaranteed income promotes better mental health is that it “reduces exposure to long-term social sources of stress” including workplace and domestic bullying and abuse, the researchers found.

Guaranteed income programs can also blunt the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on stress and mental illness among low-income people of color, wrote a group of 21 British and French researchers in a commentary published last year in the journal Wellcome Open Research. “Mental health is best ensured by urgently rebuilding the social and economic supports stripped away over the last decade,” the authors wrote. 

The researchers called on governments to pump funds into community services, peer support, and local community organizations, and to replace conditional benefit systems with some form of guaranteed income. “This may sound unfeasibly expensive, but the social and economic costs, not to mention the costs in personal and community suffering, though often invisible, are far greater,” they wrote.

Stockton residents I spoke with said chronic financial instability seemed to contribute to anxiety, depression and other psychological woes. 

Before they entered the SEED program, the burden of financial problems and childcare responsibilities fell heavily on Pam and Jim, a couple in their early 30s who asked to be identified only by their first names. Both experienced panic attacks, and Pam said she began carrying anti-anxiety pills with her at all times. That stopped, she says, when they began receiving the monthly stipend. “I haven’t even touched them in a while,” she says. 

A few years before entering the SEED program, a mother named Chelsea had moved with her two young children into an affordable apartment. As sole provider, she worked overtime hours to support her family, then found herself in crisis when her car’s engine blew. She ended up  leasing an additional car, while still paying off her broken-down vehicle. When the landlord raised the rent, she was terrified she wouldn’t be able to make both the car payments and rent. 

After being selected for SEED, she says, her financial situation — and her mental state — improved. Had the help come a few years earlier, she said, she might have escaped an abusive relationship. “I stayed in a bad marriage for longer than I should have because I didn’t have the funds or the means to leave,” she said. She too asked to be identified by her first name.

The SEED evaluation report includes several stories from participants, including a woman named Mekie, who works in warehousing, has six children and six grandchildren, and lives with her 17- and 19-year-old sons. The extra money means her sons don’t go hungry if they travel with their sports teams. “Basically, it was for them,” she said. 

Tubbs was widely credited for the success of the income initiative and ended his first term as mayor with a $13 million surplus. Still, he lost the next mayoral election, after being attacked by a website called the 209 Times (209 is the Stockton area code) owned, secretly, by another candidate for mayor. An editorial by the Los Angeles Times said the so-called news site “published numerous misleading claims” and was a “nefarious example” of a new phenomenon: “politically funded websites that advance a partisan agenda under the guise of publishing local news.”

Tubbs told me last year for an interview in Columbia Journalism Review that the 209 Times regularly attacked his guaranteed income initiative with outright lies and distortions. “People saw 209 Times and thought, ‘Well, it’s a news site. Why would anyone purposely and deliberately go out and deceive people?’”

Stories predicting that recipients couldn’t manage their funds infuriated Tomas Vargas. “It lit a fire under me when it was said that we were going to be lazy (and) were just going to blow it,” he said. 

While Tubbs is no longer mayor, his work has had national impact. He’s now a special advisor for economic mobility and opportunity for California Governor Gavin Newsom, who has earmarked $35 million in funding for a guaranteed income pilot aimed at pregnant women and foster youth about to age out of the system. Cities including Newark, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Houston, and Jackson, Mississippi, have joined a group founded by Tubbs, Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, and are hatching plans to launch local basic-income efforts. 

The potential for regular income to improve people’s mental health — by easing their worries about paying rent, utility bills, or a child’s birthday present — remains one of Tubbs’ key motivations.

“People who live in poverty or are struggling to cling to the middle class live with huge amounts of stress and anxiety,” he said. “Even a relatively small infusion of reliable income can make a major impact in alleviating that stress.

“There are certainly mental health disorders that cannot be solved with money, but we also need to acknowledge that a lot of the anxiety people in America are weighed down with is caused by economic insecurity,” he said. “Guaranteed income is not a silver bullet, but it has a positive impact on mental health — allowing people to feel that they can breathe and to live their lives with dignity.”