Brother can you spare a dime? – or $500?
The first time I saw The Dollar Store it was 1991 and I was in Stockton for work. I thought it was a brain storm of an idea, especially with three toddlers’ stocking to fill at Christmas. I was still in my 20’s and not cognizant of the fact of how poor Stockton was or that these types of stores were only located in regions with the lowest median incomes.
And Stockton’s finances haven’t gotten much better since.
During the Great Recession in 2008 the city declared bankruptcy and it was known as America’s foreclosure capital. Stockton has since pulled itself out of bankruptcy but currently a quarter of the population lives in poverty and the median income, $46,000, is roughly one-fourth below the national level.
That makes the average Stockton employee one major automobile repair away from economic ruin.
So what could be a creative solution for the worst income inequality in the richest country in the world?
Maybe Universal Basic Income (UBI) would work.
The concept of UBI is an unconditional cash payment to all citizens. The idea to implement UBI has been bounced about all over the world. Proponents see UBI as a neat solution to poverty and it removes the bureaucracy of the Department of Welfare. Detractors argue it would remove the incentive to work.
UBI has been tried on limited groups in Finland, Canada, Uganda and Cambodia. A 12-year pilot program is underway in Kenya.
So why not Stockton?
Stockton mayor Michael Tubbs, at 27, is the youngest mayor and the first African-American to hold the job there and he is leading the charge.
Mr. Tubbs grew up in South Stockton, where payday lenders and pawn shops exploit the desperation of working poor people. His father was in prison for gang-related crime. His mother worked in medical customer service and struggled to pay bills, relying on welfare and food stamps.
His plan is to deliver $500 a month in donated cash to a 100 local families, no strings attached.
The trial would be the first in the United States, though Alaska provides similar free money. For the past 40 years, all Alaskans, including children, have received an annual cash payment from oil royalties.
The trial program in Stockton, along with two other scholarship programs, is funded by private donations.
Billionaires such as the Spanos family, which owns the Los Angeles Chargers football team, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, and Pacific Gas and Electric have donated a million dollars to start the pilot project.
If the UBI program is considered a success, Mr. Tubbs will seek to convince the rest of the state and even the federal government to consider it.
But what constitutes a success? Skeptics suggest it’s a worse version of welfare.
Maybe poor people will just spend it on drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes and lazy people will quit going to work.
The New York Times interviewed a possible recipient.
“‘Oh, my,’ said Ms. Holliman, who still carries credit card debt of more than $500 and does not earn enough money to regularly buy fresh fruit. ‘When you’re struggling, you’re going to rush and pay your bills.’”
Residents say they’d spend the $500 on everything from rent, to child care, to food or even luxuries like a new television, Tubbs said. He hopes to chip away at assumptions that poorer residents might use the money on drugs and wants to show most are going to buy the necessities.
A Mr. Hughs on Facebook said:
“It is such a fundamental idea behind America that if you work hard, you can get ahead — and you certainly don’t live in poverty. But that isn’t true today, and it hasn’t been true in the country for decades…….I believe that unless we make significant changes today, the income inequality in our country will continue to grow and call into question the very nature of our social contract.”
So do Alaskans use their free hand-out to buy drugs? Research says that they use their royalties for education, to get them through seasonal changes in their work, or to pay for heating during the winter.
And the “hand-out” hasn’t tarnished their reputation as hard workers, either.
“It’s about changing the narrative around who’s deserving,” Mr. Tubbs told The New York Times.
You Left Your Heart Where?
I used to fantasize about renting or owning an atelier in San Francisco. I wanted to hear the big city sounds, feel the crisp air of the Bay, gaze up at the sky scrapers, and every once in a while see a play at the Curran Theater. I even liked the honking taxis.
I imagined myself getting up in the morning to walk to Café de la Presse at the foot of China Town, buying a Paris Match, and sitting down for a leisurely coffee.
Recently I apartment sat for a friend who lives in San Francisco while it was 105 degrees here and 80 degrees there. I quarantined myself in her bedroom to finish off a huge backlog of work. The apartment was down an ally next to China Town where my friend warned me the homeless defecated at night and urged me to take off my shoes before going inside.
Her place was secured by three beat up doors and four rickety locks, making me wonder every time I left her building if I would ever figure out how to get back inside. At least I knew I had a place to go to the bathroom in a pinch.
When I finally did emerge from my cinderblock enclosure I ambled up Grant Street to fulfill my ancient quest at Café de la Presse.
To my chagrin there was no Paris Match, no Hola, no Le Monde, no Herald Tribune, and no Guardian.
A little defeated, I switched to plan B and decided to hike back up Grant Avenue to Columbus and check out City Lights Books to pick up the free local rags.
For those of you who do not know, City Lights is a San Francisco landmark where the Beat Generation of novelists and poetry writers started the 1960’s revolution.
I was a little hesitant about my plan because I didn’t bring a bag and wondered if I wanted to carry all those newspapers with me as I wandered through North Beach looking for a café.
Ends up, I wasn’t going to need a bag.
Going in and out of the musty smelling shelves and not finding their newspaper rack, I gave up and asked the 20-something clerk behind the counter.
“Where do you keep your newspapers?” I asked.
“Papers?” he said.
Yes P-A-P-E-R,-S” I said.
“Oh we don’t have those,” he smirked and returned his gaze back to his phone.
I was in the City for a full week, long enough for the local newspapers to go through the distribution cycle. While I did come across some kiosks indicating that San Francisco still had newspapers, they were all empty. On my fifth day I finally found one SF Weekly in the Financial District.
Café de la Presse did have the New York Times, but I can get the New York Times delivered on my front lawn in Visalia, which if you haven’t heard (see further inside this issue) is a pretty great place to live.
So what was I doing in San Francisco?
The collapse of the press in the best-read city in the United States is a bit disquieting, especially in these times when the press is under siege by our Dear Leader.
Steve Schmidt, former Republican strategist, said about Mr. Trump’s assault on the press:
“This is deliberate. This is an assault on objective truth. And once you get people to surrender their sovereignty, what is true is what the leader says is true, what is true is what the leader believes is true, even though what’s true is staring you in the face. When that happens, you are no longer living in a democratic republic.”
Mr. Trump confirmed Mr. Schmidt’s point during one of his populist rallies:
“Just remember, what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
In other words, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”
Well, I think the lack of newspapers in San Francisco also gives up a bit of our sovereignty. Good thing Visalia has the Valley Voice!
Besides the lack of local and international press, the nail in the coffin for my love affair with San Francisco came one late afternoon after seeing a tear jerker movie in the Financial District. I emerged from the theater on the cusp of a pity party as the fog was casting an eerie shadow over the Trans America Building.
Then I remembered passing a Starbucks.
A latte would be just the ticket, and even with my nonexistent sense of direction (traveling for me is always an adventure) I found my way back to the Starbucks and pulled on the handle. It didn’t budge. I tried the other handle and it didn’t budge, either. While shaking the door I smashed my teary eyes against the glass looking a little disheveled to see if anyone was inside.
Unbelievably, Starbucks was closed. It was 5:30pm.
To my relief I found another Starbucks two blocks away but it was closed also. In fact all the restaurants and cafés were closed along Market Street and in the Financial district. My only option was a baguette and cheese in the deli section of Safeway.
From that point on I left behind any romanticizing about San Francisco in the rear view mirror.
It didn’t smell like the city I used to know. It didn’t sound or feel like the city I used to know. As a kid, in the 1970’s, my parents and I would stay at the Clift Hotel on Geary and I would go across the street to the news stand (gone) and gawk at all the foreign magazines. Before taking off for the day, we would get our sandwiches at Dave’s Delicatessen (still there)and head across the Bay Bridge for what would be a glorious fall afternoon of watching the Cal Bears lose to whatever team they happened to be playing.
Tony Bennett probably sold a lot of records, and Café de la Presse still hums with an international crowd, but no one has ever left their heart in San Francisco and they certainly won’t in the future.
Whether I’m sitting along the Willamette River watching the eclipse with Teddy, or reclining on a worn out red velvet upholstered chair in a La Paz movie theater with Alex, or engaging in my first kiss at the Marin Headlands with my husband, it’s not where you are but who you are with.
I never left my heart in San Francisco. I left it with the people I love.