Stockton, California, went bankrupt just six years ago, but that isn’t stopping the Central Valley city from experimenting with a new scheme to redistribute taxpayer money.

It’s called “universal basic income,” or UBI, and soon Mayor Michael Tubbs will be overseeing a pilot project in which low-income residents get handed $500 a month, no questions asked.

“I feel that as mayor it’s my responsibility to do all I could to begin figuring out what’s the best way to make sure that folks in our community have a real economic floor,” Tubbs explained.

The advocates of the plan make no bones about the fact that they think the idea will work and will serve as a showcase for other cities and states, and even other nations.

“Universal basic income” is now firmly in mainstream political discourse. Political parties, activist groups and now even think tanks such as the right-of-center  are taking the policy seriously.

While some may see UBI as just the latest harebrained idea from those seeking to reframe socialism, it’s also being touted by at least one conservative think-tank, the Adam Smith Institute. And that has “progressives” concerned.

In an article in the Independent newspaper of London, Kyle Lewis and Will Stronge, co-founders of the think tank Autonomy, are fretting that UBI could be adopted by conservative politicians as an excuse to dismantle the welfare state.

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“Once implemented, for example, it is easy to imagine a scenario in which leading conservative politicians and think tanks would argue that individuals will now have the ‘economic autonomy’ with which to meet their own individual health-care needs, resulting in a rapid withdrawal of funding for the NHS and social welfare, and the implementation of a U.S.-style healthcare system,” they write.

“While a ‘basic’ individual health care insurance policy might be affordable and calculated into a UBI payment, a traumatic life-changing injury or disease would push the burden of responsibility back onto the individual with no social safety net for protection beyond their personal payments.”

So, these advocates of UBI want to ensure it’s an “add-on” to other social welfare programs and not a replacement.

The Adam Smith Institute promotes the idea of direct cash transfers to low-income people as a way of streamlining bureaucracy and saving taxpayer money.

But rather than embrace the support of conservatives, Lewis and Stronge are blowing the whistle on the potential political alliance.

“Right-wing supporters of UBI, such as the Adam Smith Institute, will try to use it as a justification for further dismantling of the welfare state and for individualizing society’s problems. It is true that the welfare state as it exists is no longer fit for purpose – but not because the principle of protecting people in vulnerable economic situations and ensuring healthcare for all is an outdated one,” they write. “Rather, to confront the problems relevant to the present age, the welfare system needs to become even more of a safety net. More specifically – it needs to be more comprehensive regarding how it takes care of the necessities of life. ”

UBI, indeed, is catching on – and not just in Stockton.

Meanwhile, back in “ground zero” Stockton, a group called the Economic Security Project is contributing $1 million to the initiative. Dorian Warren, co-chairman of the project, says the goal is to gather data on the economic and social impacts of giving people a basic income.

In addition to tracking what residents do with the money, Warren said they will be monitoring how a basic income affects things like self-esteem and identity.

“What does it mean to say, ‘Here is unconditional guaranteed income just based on you being a human being?'” Warren asked.

The hope is to demonstrate the potential of UBI and to encourage other places to give it a try. UBI has recently gotten a boost from Silicon Valley moguls concerned about income inequality and the future of society, but the idea isn’t actually all that new, said Michelle Anderson, a Stanford law professor.

“UBI was first pitched by Nixon as an answer to post-industrial job losses,” she said.

With this experiment, Anderson said Stockton may discover it gets more economic stimulus by giving money to its citizens rather than corporations it hopes will bring in jobs and tax revenue.

“The UBI that is being proposed in Stockton now is very small compared to the big corporate subsidies that cities like that engage in,” Anderson said.

Stockton racked up millions in debt on development projects in the past, which got the city into trouble, said Tubbs.

“We’ve overspent on things like arenas and marinas and things of that sort to try to lure in tourism and dollars that way,” he said.

Tubbs thinks the UBI experiment will show that Stockton’s best bet is to invest in its own people.



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