(CALMATTERS) – If there was ever a good time to convince people guaranteed income can make a difference, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs figured it’d be in the middle of a pandemic that is taking a heavier toll in poor neighborhoods and among Black and Latinx communities. So Tubbs, whose city has been at the heart of one of the nation’s few experiments with free cash payments for more than a year, launched Mayors for Guaranteed Income last month to push for federal policy. So far, the mayors of Oakland, Los Angeles, Compton, Atlanta and 13 others have signed on.

Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs speaks during a press conference by Big City Mayors, a coalition of mayors from California’s 13 largest cities focused on finding solutions to homelessness, at the California Capitol on March 9, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

“In the worst way, the pandemic has been a really good moment for guaranteed income,” said Sukhi Samra, executive director for Stockton’s privately-funded program, the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration. “It exposed the economic fragility of most American households, and especially of Black and Brown households who have been excluded from economic well being and prosperity.”

COVID-19’s devastating economic toll has already pushed legislators across the congressional floor to rethink unconditional income, from Republican Sen. Mitt Romney calling for widespread cash payments to every American adult to Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris, Ed Markey and Bernie Sanders proposing $2,000 monthly payments to those with incomes lower than $120,000 for the duration of the pandemic. As lawmakers across the country craft emergency relief policies and disburse cash benefits, many are finding that Stockton’s guaranteed income experiment has a lot to teach.

The San Joaquin Valley city of 310,000, which bridges the Bay Area and the Central Valley, began providing 125 residents with monthly payments of $500 back in February 2019. SEED research highlighted the lack of faith in public and private institutions that often characterize marginalized cities like Stockton, whose majority minority population was hit especially hard by redlining and segregated housing policies. In 2012, Stockton became the then-largest city to file for bankruptcy in American history.

Overall, recipients have spent the most on food and report lower levels of anxiety, program researchers have found. “What can $500 really do? The answer is a whole lot,” said Amy Castro Baker, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania and co-researcher on the SEED program. The median income of Stockton’s recipients is $1,800 a month, so SEED payments represent an increase of almost 30 percent.

“The $500 allowed essential workers and whole families to be able to shelter in place and follow public health guidelines,” Castro Baker said. “It’s allowing them to weather a public health crisis because they’re able to provide the basics. And they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.”