Is Maggie Denang deserving of your money? How about Tomas Vargas Jr.?
Denang and Vargas are residents of Stockton, a high-poverty city on the outskirts of the Bay Area’s technology-and-wealth boom. They are also participants in a much publicized, pathbreaking project, the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, in which 130 people are receiving $500 a month for 18 months, to use however they see fit. The experiment raises the question of whether Vargas and Denang are worthy of no-strings-attached cash, or whether anyone is, or everyone is.
The program’s proponents have argued that its test subjects would be good stewards of the resources. They would use the money to improve their lives, keep the bills paid, and plan for the future—and Stockton would benefit from a little economic stimulus as they did. But the project has country-sized ambitions, not just neighborhood-sized ones. It wants to show the United States, in this age of late-capitalist excess, fear-stoking automation, polarized politics, and surging socialism, that individuals are the best judges of how to spend the resources that they have.
SEED is the brainchild of Stockton’s mayor, Michael D. Tubbs, and the Economic Security Project, a think tank and advocacy group focused on studying and promoting cash transfers in the United States. The pilot had few enrollment criteria: The recipients had to be adults in a Stockton neighborhood where the median income was at or below the city average of $46,033 a year. SEED sent letters to a randomly selected group of households meeting those criteria, and then signed up a randomly selected group of individuals who responded. In February, enrollees began receiving $500 a month, loaded onto a debit card. They were told to use the money however they wanted, with researchers studying how they fared and a group of participants agreeing to talk with the media about their lives starting this week.