MORE ABOUT THE STRATEGY USED IN THIS CASE STUDY Guaranteed income
After the Great Recession of 2008, home values in Stockton dropped precipitously. Reliant on property taxes for revenue, Stockton became the largest ever American city to file for bankruptcy in 2012. Facing a dire fiscal outlook, the City cut social services despite nearly a quarter of residents living below the poverty line.
To address residents’ income instability, then-Mayor Michael Tubbs started the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED) in 2019. A guaranteed income program, SEED provided 125 Stockton residents living in low-income neighborhoods with $500 per month for 24 consecutive months. The program was administered by the City of Stockton but funded by philanthropies, primarily the Economic Security Project. Research showed that SEED participants had greater financial stability, a higher rate of full-time employment, and significant improvements in mental health over those in the control group.
Keys to SEED’s success included deep engagement with community members on the design of the program, which built trust and improved the program’s design; a focus on data collection and research transparency to keep the public informed on the program’s performance; an agreement with the San Joaquin Human Services Agency to ensure recipients of cash transfers retained any existing public benefits; and a commitment to storytelling that demonstrated how the program affected participants’ lives, which helped counter prevailing narratives about unconditional cash transfers.
Obstacles SEED faced included challenges recruiting enough participants for the demonstration; an inability to include homeless Stocktonians, as participation was limited to those with permanent addresses; and the public’s negative perceptions about guaranteed income programs.
Results and accomplishments
Guaranteed income recipients in Stockton increased their rate of full-time employment from 28% in February 2019 to 40% a year later, at 12 percentage point increase. The control group saw a 5 percentage point increase, from 32% to 37%.
Nearly all the cash transfers to Stockton residents were spent on basic needs and essentials, such as food, clothes, home goods, utilities, and auto care. Less than 1 percent was spent on alcohol or tobacco, according to aggregated spending data.
The share of SEED recipients who said they could pay for an unexpected expense with cash (rather than predatory loan or another method) increased from 25% to 52% after one year - a 27 percentage point increase, compared to a 3% increase for the control group.
- Demonstrating the impact of a guaranteed income: Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration's (SEED) preliminary results garnered significant national media attention, given the demonstration’s rigorous evaluation and positive outcomes. These included a dramatic increase in financial stability, a rise in full-time employment, and significant improvements in mental health. As the nation’s first city-led guaranteed income program, SEED has built momentum and awareness for other jurisdictions.
- Improving financial stability for Stocktonians: For 125 residents in Stockton, SEED helped to secure a more stable financial position. This includes reduced income volatility (1.5 times less than the control group), increased cash liquidity to pay for unexpected expenses (24 percent higher than the control group), and higher rates of full-time employment (up 12 percent). While financial stability is important to economic mobility in any environment, it became especially crucial during the COVID pandemic as residents grappled with increased unemployment and widespread economic uncertainty.
- Improving mental health outcomes: The SEED research team carefully developed a research design to measure outcomes beyond those tied directly to financial wellbeing. The effects were clear: the program was associated with reduced depression and anxiety, and increased cases of “self-determination,” such as completing a certification program to pursue a new career path.
- Building momentum for the model: Mayor Tubbs and members of the SEED team built on the demonstration’s positive momentum to launch the nonprofit organization Mayors for a Guaranteed Income in June 2020. The organization advocates for public guaranteed income programs in cities across the country. It is currently working with 25 cities across the country to run their own guaranteed income pilot programs.
What was the challenge?
- Bankruptcy diminishes Stockton’s social safety net: In 2012, Stockton became the largest American city ever to file for bankruptcy. In the wake of the 2008 Financial Crisis, the median home price in Stockton dropped from $400,000 in 2006 to $110,000 by 2009. The city, which relied heavily on property taxes, experienced severe revenue shortfalls and was forced to make drastic cuts across all social services.
- High poverty rates: In 2018, nearly a quarter of Stockton’s 300,000 residents lived below the poverty line, and the city was 18th nationally in child poverty. The city’s median income was $46,033, 34 percent lower than the state average.
- A new mayor with a vision: In 2016, Michael Tubbs was elected Mayor of Stockton, becoming the city’s youngest ever and first Black mayor. Mayor Tubbs ran as a forceful advocate for a public guaranteed income program and was elected with 71 percent of the vote.
- Public stigmatization of guaranteed income programs: Despite promising evidence from guaranteed income pilots in the U.S. and abroad, a vocal group of Stockton residents took part in a broader national trend: arguing that unconditional cash transfers could lead recipients to remove themselves from the workforce and/or spend the public funds on non-essential items, such as alcohol.
- Securing private funding: With the City of Stockton’s limited financial capacity, a publicly funded guaranteed income program was not viable. Instead, Mayor Tubbs and his staff needed to seek out private funding.
What was the solution?
- Providing a guaranteed income to residents: To reduce income instability of Stockton residents and to evaluate the impact of a guaranteed income, the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED) provided 125 Stockton residents living in low-income neighborhoods with $500/month for 24 consecutive months starting in February 2019. The program was originally set to last 18 months but was extended for 6 months after SEED received additional funding in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Unconditional cash transfers: Every month, each recipient received $500 via a debit card regardless of other factors, such as employment status or how the money had been spent the previous month. The only conditions to enter the pool of potential participants were age (at least 18) and neighborhood (residing in a Stockton neighborhood with a median income at or below $46,033). There was no criterion specifically tied to an individual’s income.
- Preserving existing public benefits: Because most recipients received public benefits tied to income, the SEED team took several steps to ensure those benefits were unaffected by the monthly cash transfers. This included partnering with the San Joaquin County Human Services Agency to implement a benefits preservation strategy and creating a “hold harmless” fund to reimburse participants in the event that any benefits were lost as a result of their involvement in SEED.
- Publicly administered, privately financed: While Mayor Tubbs and his staff administered SEED, the City of Stockton did not have the resources to fund the demonstration with public dollars. Instead, Mayor Tubbs and his team secured $1 million from the Economic Security Project for cash transfers and $694,000 from Evidence for Action of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for research activities, along with donations from 11 other foundations and philanthropists to fund the program.
What factors drove success?
- Designing a program alongside Stockton residents: Mayor Tubbs, his staff, and the research team spent nine months engaging with community members to design the guaranteed income demonstration project. This included frequent town halls, focus groups, and interviews with public housing residents, churches, the Chamber of Commerce, and social service agencies. By designing the program alongside potential recipients, SEED removed significant barriers -- such as mistrust and logistical hurdles -- that could have reduced the impact or uptake of the cash transfers.
- Prioritizing data collection and research transparency: Throughout the demonstration project, SEED collected spending data from recipients (via surveys and debit card tracking) and reported that data on a public dashboard. Additionally, the SEED researchers attended town halls regularly, developed relationships with potential recipients, provided frequent program updates to a residents’ advisory committee, and answered questions from the public. As a result, a broader pool of residents felt comfortable participating in the demonstration project, even as members of the control group who did not receive the cash.
- Preserving existing benefits: The SEED team dedicated extensive time and resources coordinating with the San Joaquin Human Services Agency and external experts to ensure that recipients’ existing benefits were unaffected by the cash transfers. Doing so provided two clear advantages: first, the guaranteed income would not be offset by a reduction in other benefits; second, the administrative burden of navigating the complex benefits system was shifted from recipients to SEED staff, eliminating a process that can be time-intensive and stress-inducing.
- Embedding storytelling in the demonstration project: In addition to 100 recipients in the treatment group for evaluation purposes, SEED also funded a pool of 25 monthly recipients to share stories of how cash transfers impacted their lives. By incorporating this storytelling component to the demonstration project, SEED could more effectively change the narrative on who deserves public assistance and how people use it.
What were the major obstacles?
- Hesitancy among Stockton residents: Initial participant recruitment, conducted by sending mailers to 1,000 eligible households, did not secure a large enough participant pool to run the demonstration project with adequately sized treatment and control groups. As a result, the SEED team sent an additional 3,000 mailers to eligible households and bought ads on Facebook, radio, and at grocery stores.
- Reaching homeless Stocktonians: To participate in SEED, residents had to live in neighborhoods with a median income at or below that of Stockton’s (roughly $46,000). As a result, those without permanent addresses, such as individuals experiencing homelessness, were ineligible to participate in the demonstration project.
- Negative perceptions on guaranteed income: Public opinion on guaranteed income programs has long been mixed, including in Stockton. As a result, program administrators reported unusually harsh media scrutiny for a privately funded and relatively small program. Given the intensive community engagement process to design and implement SEED, negative media attention appeared to fuel some local opposition to the unconditional nature of the cash transfers.
In the wake of the Great Recession and facing a $26-million revenue shortfall, the City of Stockton is forced to file for bankruptcy. Public services are scaled back dramatically, including reducing city staff by 43 percent and eliminating most benefits for retired public employees. Nearly one in five residents lives in poverty.
As the City of Stockton seeks to climb out of bankruptcy, 26-year-old City Councilmember Michael Tubbs becomes the youngest and first Black mayor in the city’s history, securing 70.6 percent of the vote. He runs on a platform promising to address intergenerational poverty through partnerships between the city, nonprofits, and the private sector.
Mayor Tubbs meets Economic Security Project co-chair Natalie Foster at a conference and describes his vision for a guaranteed income demonstration project in Stockton. Foster and Tubbs continue conversations, and ESP provides a $1-million grant to the Reinvent South Stockton Coalition, the organization Tubbs founded as a city councilor, to launch the program. The SEED team continues to raise funds from other private donors as well. Evidence for Action, a branch of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provides an additional $694,000 for research activities.
As part of its collaboration with ESP, the City of Stockton conducts a national search for two sets of researchers: program evaluators who can conduct quantitative impact analysis, along with storytelling specialists. Stockton selects sociologists from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Tennessee who had previous experience evaluating a guaranteed income program. Just 10 days after being selected, the researchers arrive in Stockton to begin designing the evaluation in partnership with residents.
After a 9-month program design process informed by frequent town halls and interviews, SEED selects 100 residents to receive $500/month as the treatment group, another 25 to receive the payments as the storytelling sample, and a final 100, who will not receive the transfer, as the control group. Program administrators issue each recipient a debit card in the middle of the month -- the result of research indicating the middle of the month is the time of least liquidity.
Just as SEED enters its second year, the COVID pandemic creates widespread economic uncertainty, which disproportionately impacts low-income workers. Unemployment jumps from 7.5 percent in March 2020 to 17.9 percent by April 2020 as 35,000 residents lose their jobs -- roughly 10 percent of the city’s population.
As the leader of the first municipally led guaranteed income program, Mayor Tubbs launches Mayors for a Guaranteed Income (MGI), a network of municipal executives from across the country working together to pilot and advocate for guaranteed income programs. Today, 25 member cities have launched pilot programs, and 60 mayors from cities have joined the organization.
The Economic Security Project and Mayors for a Guaranteed Income lead a 6-week online sprint as part of Results for America’s What Works Cities City Solutions work. Mayor Tubbs and SEED researchers lead sessions for local government and civic leaders interested in replicating the program.
With the COVID-19 crisis disproportionately impacting low-income families, Mayor Tubbs and his team secure additional funding from an individual donor, Carol Tolan, for cash disbursements and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to extend the research for 6 months.
After distributing a total of $1.5 million in cash transfers to Stockton residents over 24 months, the guaranteed income demonstration comes to a conclusion. One participant, Laura said, “Before SEED came along, I was paying a lot of bills and didn’t know how I was gonna eat…it’s like being able to breathe.”
The SEED research team releases the first year results from the randomized control trial, which shows a large, positive impact by nearly all measures. The analysis reveals that recipients experienced reduced income volatility, increased capacity to find full-time employment, reduced depression and anxiety, and increased opportunities for goal-setting and risk-taking.
How did leaders confront the problem?
- Stockton residents in need: After filing for bankruptcy in 2012, the City of Stockton was forced to make major cuts to nearly all public services, adding another barrier to upward mobility for the residents most in need. By 2018, nearly one in five Stocktonians lived in poverty.
- Addressing intergenerational poverty: Michael Tubbs runs for Mayor of Stockton with a promise to address intergenerational poverty, including the potential for a guaranteed income program. He is elected with an overwhelming majority, securing 70.6 percent of the vote.
- Pairing leadership and need with funding capacity: Mayor Tubbs meets Economic Security Project co-chair Natalie Foster at a Tech for America conference. He describes his vision for guaranteed income in Stockton; Foster, who had already been evaluating potential sites to run a guaranteed income pilot, zeroes in on funding the project in Stockton.
- Public skepticism around unconditional transfers: Both in Stockton and nationally, a significant portion of the public opposes unconditional cash transfer programs, often pointing to specific concerns around how the money is spent and that it discourages searching for employment. SEED represented an opportunity for guaranteed income advocates to disprove such assumptions.
How was the strategy designed?
- Unconditional cash transfers: The underlying principle of the guaranteed income program in Stockton was that there were “no strings attached” to the monthly $500 payments. Unlike many other benefit programs, recipients did not need to pursue employment or spend the money in a particular way. The only requirements were age (at least 18) and residence in a relatively low-income neighborhood.
- Issuing an RFP: By funding the guaranteed income pilot in Stockton, the Economic Security Project sought to demonstrate the potential of such programs to policymakers across the country. To do so, ESP issued a request for proposal to design the research demonstration project in partnership with Mayor Tubbs’ administration. After a national search, ESP and the City of Stockton selected two sociologists who had previously worked together, including on guaranteed incomes: Dr. Stacia West of the University of Tennessee and Dr. Amy Castro Baker of the University of Pennsylvania.
- Designing alongside the community: The Tubbs administration and the research team spent nine months designing the demonstration and evaluation, including soliciting input from a wide range of Stockton residents and community groups. This included frequent town halls, surveys, focus groups, and interviews.
- Preserving existing public benefits: Because most recipients received public benefits tied to income, the SEED team took several steps to ensure those benefits were unaffected by the monthly cash transfers. These included partnering with the San Joaquin County Human Services Agency to implement a benefits preservation strategy, such as not issuing 1099s for the additional income, and securing waivers from the California Department of Social Services to preserve TANF benefits. Additionally, SEED created a “hold harmless” fund to reimburse participants in the event that any benefits were lost as a result of their involvement.
- Cash via debit card: Another significant element of the program design was the mechanism through which SEED would transfer the money to residents. Without certainty that each recipient would have a bank account, researchers determined that a debit card would be the most inclusive approach, and one that best positioned recipients to avoid predatory check-cashing services. SEED partnered with Oakland-based nonprofit Community Financial Resources to issue the cards.
- Timing the transfer: To ensure maximum impact of the cash transfers, SEED issued the new debit cards on the 15th of each month. This was done because research during the design process indicated that this was the period relative to paycheck and bill due date cycles that residents experienced the least cash liquidity, and thus could most benefit from additional income.
How was the approach funded?
- Launching the demonstration project: The Economic Security Project provided $1 million to launch SEED. The funding, which covered nearly 90% of the $500 per month to 125 residents for 18 months, was administered by the Reinvent South Stockton Coalition, the non-profit organization created by Mayor Tubbs. The SEED team also secured private funding from 11 other individuals and organizations.
- Funding the research: Mayor Tubbs and his team also secured $694,000 from Evidence for Action, a branch of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. This allowed SEED to hire two professors and a social worker to design the demonstration project and independently evaluate it. The funding also supported paying recipients (in the form of Wal-Mart gift cards worth between $5 and $40) for participating in research activities, such as monthly surveys, in-depth interviews, and feedback on the public-facing data dashboard.
- Extending the demonstration during COVID: To extend SEED for six months, Mayor Tubbs and his team received an additional $375,000 for cash transfers from an individual donor, Carol Tolan. SEED also secured an additional $270,000 from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to continue research activities.
- Issuing ATM cards: SEED paid roughly $10,000 to Community Financial Resources to disburse the monthly payments. The fee included the costs of the physical cards, along with customer service (such as replacing lost cards).
How was the plan implemented?
- Selecting a research and design team: To launch the program, ESP worked with the Stockton team to issue a national RFP for researchers and administrators. Once selected, the research team arrived in Stockton within ten days to begin research and program design alongside Mayor Tubbs and his team.
- Partnering with program facilitators: To ensure residents could easily and reliably access the payments, SEED partnered with Community Financial Resources, who issued the debit cards and provided customer service support. SEED also partnered with the San Joaquin County Human Services Agency to develop a benefits preservation strategy.
- Recruiting participants: The demonstration project required 225 participants: 100 in the treatment group, 100 in the control group, and 25 in the storytelling group. To collect registrants, SEED initially sent mailers to 1,000 eligible homes (based on neighborhood income). However, after limited uptake, SEED expanded efforts to include advertising in grocery stores and on social media and radio, along with another round of mailers to 3,000 eligible homes. This second effort helped SEED to secure a representative sample.
- Issuing the payments: After the 9-month design process, SEED issued its first $500 payment to each of the 125 recipients in February 2019. Originally scheduled to last 18 months, the SEED team secured funding to extend the program by 6 months in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
How was the approach measured and refined?
- Guaranteed income as a demonstration project: SEED was designed as a public policy demonstration that, through rigorous, independent evaluation could measure the impact of a guaranteed income. To that end, SEED’s research team carefully measured a range of primary outcomes (such as changes in financial wellbeing, employment status, and physical functioning) as well as secondary ones (including perceived stress, use of public benefits, and interactions with the child welfare system).
- Data-driven program design: The SEED team evaluated quantitative (surveys and spending reports from Community Financial Resources) and quantitative data (interviews and focus groups) to design and refine each component of the program. For instance, through that data collection and evaluation process, the team identified the 15th of each month as the optimal time to disburse payments, and to do so via debit card. Similarly, the public-facing dashboard was redesigned after resident feedback indicated it was overly complicated and not user friendly.
- Extending the program: With SEED collecting and evaluating data continuously while running a randomized control trial, the team made an evidence-based case to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to provide additional funding in response to COVID-19.
- Advocating for the cause: One significant barrier to launching a larger guaranteed income program is public skepticism of unconditional cash transfers. As a result, Mayor Tubbs launched Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, a national network of 60 mayors from cities of all sizes. Together, they work to address misperceptions about the impact of unconditional guaranteed income programs.
- Year-by-year outcome reports: In March 2021, SEED released its First-Year Impact Analysis, providing insights on the first half of the demonstration project. Results included increased financial stability and liquidity, better mental health outcomes, and higher rates of employment for recipients. Data on the second half, including the COVID extension, will be released next year.
Results for America would like to thank the following individuals for their help in the completion of this case study: Michael Tubbs, Sukhi Samra, and Cameron Burns of Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, and formerly of the City of Stockton; Madeleine Neighly of the Economic Security Project; Pandora Crowder of the Reinvent Stockton Foundation; Dr. Stacia West of the University of Tennessee and Dr. Amy Castro Baker; and Erin Coltrera of the University of Pennsylvania.