By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
In marking the two-year anniversary of the COVID-19 lockdowns, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) recently engaged former Stockton mayor, Michael D. Tubbs in a discussion about how to move forward from the pandemic.
The virtual talk was titled, “COVID in California: What Have We Learned about Ensuring an Equitable Recovery?” and was designed to give Californians a better understanding of how leaders are addressing the state’s challenges. The discussion with Tubbs, Stockton’s youngest and first Black mayor, was part of the PPIC’s 2022 Speaker Series on California’s Future and was moderated by Vice President and Senior Fellow Lande Ajose.
“It felt like for a brief moment, during the pandemic, we all were on the same page,” said Tubbs, who is also the founder of End Poverty in California, a nonprofit organization that shares the name of a movement created by famed white journalist and activist Upton Sinclair in 1934.
“It was like ‘Wow, poverty is a public health crisis, poverty is a preexisting condition, how can we exist as a nation, but particularly as a Golden State, with so many people unable to afford housing, with so many people without paid time off to shelter in place?
“My hope for what happens as we rebound from this pandemic, is we don’t look at some of the gains at the top as being indicative of a healthy economy, or even some gains at the middle as meaning that everything’s okay, or that we’re going back to what was, because even what was before the pandemic was very precarious.”
Tubbs is known for his support of universal basic income (UBI), which he piloted in Stockton in 2017, giving $500 a month to a sampling of 125 residents for two years. He later formed a national Mayors For Guaranteed Income group that resulted in 30 other cities following suit.
There is much work to be done, Tubbs said. “We know the next generations of this state are going to be even more diverse, even more folks of color. We know, based off data, that our families of color, that our Latina women, our Black women, Native women, Southeast Asian women, etc., haven’t been made whole.”
Some groups are doing better as we rebound from the pandemic and while it’s great to highlight the good that’s happening, Tubbs warns against “losing sight of what we need to do.”
When asked by Ajose how he’d grade California on its economic recovery from the pandemic to date, Tubbs replied, “C plus/B minus.”
“It hasn’t been an equal recovery,” he said. “It’s been good in the sense that we still have an economy, that we still have industry, that we still have commerce, but it hasn’t been good to the fact that we still have folks who can’t afford housing even more so now. We still have millions of women who have left the workforce, even if they have left the workforce by choice because of schooling and Zoom and care responsibilities, but also because many of the jobs they work in are now not as plentiful.”
Inflation hasn’t helped either, he said.
“If you were struggling before gas was $6, you’re not doing better now and that happened at the same time the federal government’s retreating a lot of the life-saving, life-sustaining support that was had during the first few years of the pandemic.”
“Given that we were in the crisis of the pandemic, the temptation is to paint a rosy picture,” he continued. “The temptation is to inspire hope and say, ‘Look at us coming back.’ In some cases we are, but the reality is, there were a lot of people feeling the pain before the pandemic. Those same people are feeling pain after the pandemic, and there hasn’t been anything meaningful that has bettered their position over the long term and not just through a particular crisis.”
Ajose and Tubbs’ talk touched on a wide range of topics including the Golden State Stimulus payments and the federal stimulus, unemployment, child tax credits, affordable childcare, and “baby bonds” to support foster youth and children who lost parents to COVID.
COVID, Tubbs said, forced people to look at their situations more critically — asking themselves if their jobs provided a good wage, stable hours and benefits. “With a safety net, with the ability to say, ‘Okay, I may not have everything, but I have enough to do what’s necessary to survive,’ folks were able to make choices about what quality of jobs they want to take, what type of environment they want to be in, what type of dignity will they be offered and that’s why we also saw an increase in union organizing and increase in collective bargaining and the increase in strikes and things of that sort, because it was the first time workers had a semblance of a foundation to say, ‘Well, let’s have a conversation, if I’m so essential, about what I need.’ It was never anything crazy, like for retail workers, I actually need to know my schedule for the week; for caregivers, I just need to be able to afford rent where I live.”
Tubbs is enamored with the idea of true freedom as agency. “If freedom is one of our values as a state, then part of it is giving folks the freedom to choose.”
It’s an elusive freedom, he admits. “I’m able to choose what type of work I do and don’t do. I’m able to choose the conditions in which I work,” Tubbs shared. “There’s a lot of people who don’t, who are forced to work in dangerous conditions, who are forced to work ridiculous hours, who are forced to work without benefits. Part of this reset has to be us taking stock, in a fiscally responsible way of course, of what worked, what is necessary and what’s essential for folks in California.”
Tubbs pointed to Gov. Newsom’s recent action around paid family leave, calling it a “good start.”
“He did start, but we also know it left out a whole segment of folks who work in small businesses who are 10-20 employees or less who weren’t part of this agreement. A part of equitable recovery is saying, ’We did it for these folks, what can we do for these folks that were left out?’”
Those who govern often look very different than those who are governed. That has to change, Tubbs said.
In March 2021, Gov. Newsom named him as his Special Adviser for Economic Mobility and Opportunity and as such, Tubbs serves as an ex-officio member on the governor’s Council of Economic Advisors and collects best-practice ideas focused on opportunity, economic mobility and fighting poverty.
“This is also about how we create pathways and processes so it’s not the same folks who were making decisions for the past 100 years about particular regions, deciding the future, but thinking about what does the process look like? We’re actually folks who are part of the community who look more like the community and are also in positions of government.”
With its population, resources and political temperature, Tubbs says California is the natural place to take on poverty in a substantive way. Naysayers have told Tubbs that it’s too lofty a goal, but he remains optimic and intent on finding solutions.
“You think ending poverty in California is crazy? We think the amount of poverty we have in the state is insane,” he said.
For the complete discussion, visit www.ppic.org.