For “basic income” recipients, less stress and a happier home

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  • Some Stockton, California, residents who are participating in a widely watched “guaranteed income” trial say the monthly cash stipend has helped ease stress and allowed them to spend more time with their families. 
  • Under the program — the first government-led experiment in basic income in the U.S. — 125 individuals were randomly selected to receive $500 for a total of 18 months.
  • One mother said her relationship with her daughters has improved because she is “calmer in my communication.”

The “guaranteed income” trial now underway in Stockton, California, could one day prove to be a groundbreaking experiment in public policy, with widespread implications for millions of Americans. But for Tomas Vargas Jr., the program has had a more immediate benefit — it’s helped him be a better dad.  

The 35-year-old Stockton resident said the $500 a month in cash he gets under the initiative has given him the breathing room to ditch the multiple low-paying gigs he once took on to make ends meet and find a full-time job. As a result, he’s now able to spend more time with his 7-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. 

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“The $500 opened up my time because I wasn’t out there seeking a side hustle,” he told CBS MoneyWatch. “Now I can actually take a breath and realize how great my kids are.” 

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“It’s the greatest thing anyone could ask for,” said Vargas Jr., who now works at Pratt Industries, a logistics company. 

The value of free money

Vargas Jr. is one of 125 people in the city, which is roughly an hour south of Sacramento, who were randomly selected to participate in the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, or SEED. The effort is spearheaded by the Economic Security Project, a network of groups focused on basic income in the U.S., and by Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, who envisioned using the monthly cash stipend as a way to level the economic playing field. 

Participants will receive a total of 18 disbursements of $500 via pre-paid gift cards and may spend the money however they wish, no strings attached. Advocates for a guaranteed income, including Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, argue that putting money directly into the pockets of those who need it is one of the best ways to lift families out of poverty.   

Basic universal income: Testing a weapon against economic insecurity

SEED has so far made nine monthly disbursements, and many recipients say they’ve spent the money on necessities like rent, groceries and household bills. Others say they’ve saved or invested the cash, as well as made more fun, discretionary purchases — including video games to reward well-behaved children and trips to the beauty parlor for moms.

Two economic-mobility experts evaluating the program — Stacia Martin West, assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, and Amy Castro Baker, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania — say the findings so far point to an important takeaway: Financially struggling individuals — not the government — know best how to make use of monetary assistance.

“The most interesting finding to me is how savvy and smart folks are with their money. If we look at rather low-income folks in this area, we see they are making incredibly rational, smart decisions about their spending,” Martin-West said. 

“People experiencing income volatility tend to know best how to manage money in ways that people in the middle and upper class often times do not. They know down to the day and hour when the money is going to run out, and they have a strategy for how they are going to leverage it,” Baker added.

More cash equals less stress

Like Vargas Jr., Stockton resident Sheila Stall is also getting a monthly cash infusion under the program. The foster mother said the stream of income has made for a more harmonious home life, specifically in her relationship with her two daughters, ages 12 and 14.

“I’m calmer in my communication — I don’t sound as frustrated, even when I have to remind them turn off the lights, shut the door [because] I got the air conditioner on,” she told researchers with SEED. 

Indeed, proponents of a guaranteed income argue that some of the gains extend well beyond providing families with a sense of financial security. “We are seeing immeasurable gains in terms of how someone feels about themselves that we can’t measure quantitatively,” Dr. Castro Baker said. 

Stall is especially heartened that her eldest daughter can now indulge in longer showers. “My 14-year-old likes taking showers — 45 minutes — I can relax a little bit about her using a little extra water because I know I’m not going to panic that she’s using too much water and I won’t be able to pay the bill.”

The additional income has also allowed Stall to get her hair and nails done, and she hopes to take her daughters to Disneyland for the first time.

“I don’t want to go and have to, for lack of another word, penny pinch on the vacation — you know, souvenirs, t-shirts. I want to get the whole, all four of us, with the little t-shirts and you know do the whole thing right,” she told SEED.

“I want him to feel the sand in his toes”

One common response among participants in the Stockton program is their appreciation for the sense of privacy they’re afforded, compared to other government aid programs.

“They’ll ask you if you have a child — they want to know about the baby’s father, when was the last time you slept with him, personal questions like that. That’s ridiculous, you know, that kind of stuff,” Stall said of other forms of assistance she’s received. 

For Jovan Bravo, 31, the income has allowed his family, including three children, to move out of their crime-ridden neighborhood to a better area. “They are a lot happier. They go outside at their own free will, ride their bikes around the neighborhood.”

Cassandra Gonzalez, 20, said the $500 cushion has helped her shoulder unforeseen medical bills for her one-year-old son. She hopes too, that by the end of the 18 months, she and her boyfriend will have moved into their own home.

“He’s got to experience the sand in his toes and the curiosity in his eyes,” she said of her son. “I love getting photos and capturing those moments with him.”

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