Dr. Bernice King and Stockton, Calif., Mayor Michael Tubbs said in a TIME 100 Talks discussion that calls for a universal basic income (UBI) have deeper roots in America than people might think, and that UBI programs could serve as a way for society to address the racial wealth gap in the U.S.
“This concept is actually American,” Tubbs said in the panel interview with King, moderated by TIME correspondent Justin Worland. A guaranteed income was supported by King’s father, Martin Luther King Jr., who recognized how the U.S. has previously generated wealth through land grants in the West. “This is how we build prosperity and build wealth and create opportunity for certain groups of people. We know, given the history of this country, that people of color and in particular Black people have historically been excluded from all the ways that the government has provided, not a handout but really a hand up.”
King said her support for a guaranteed income is in part about preserving her father’s legacy. But it also addresses very real problems, she noted. “I’m seriously concerned about where we are in terms [economic inequality] the Black community,” King said. “The numbers economically have not changed since 1968. The wealth gap — it’s basically the same.”
In 2019, Tubbs launched a pilot universal basic income program in Stockton wherein 125 randomly selected city residents received an unconditional $500 monthly payment. In June, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the city of Stockton extended the program through 2021.
Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey will also contribute $3 million to grow the program, Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, which counts Tubbs among its 14 members, announced Thursday. The investment will fund domestic violence and housing insecurities-focused basic income programs in Stockton as well as support research and planning for cities to launch their own pilot programs.
“I think it’s important that more pilots be done in other cities,” King said. More such UBI programs, she said, can help more people understand the benefits, which can put more pressure on the federal government.
“It’s on us as leaders to follow the moral leadership of folks like Rev. Bernice King and do what’s necessary in providing for our people,” Tubbs said. “And provide for all people during this time.”
Part of that leadership, Tubbs said, means addressing systemic racism in every institution — including the environment.
“Every single facet of American life that has an institution has been infected with the disease of racism,” Tubbs said “You look at environmental injustice: It’s not an accident that Black folks [and] Latino folks are more likely to get COVID-19 or die from COVID-19, because they’re also more likely to live in an area with high rates of asthma because of the environmental toxins in the air… They’re more likely to have diabetes because they’re more likely to live in communities with no grocery stores, with more liquor stores and no safe spaces to play.”
In an effort to address environmental injustice in his city, Tubbs worked to create Rise Stockton in 2018. The initiative, which just received a $10 million grant from the state of California, aims to provide clean water, fresh fruit and clean air to an area of about 5 sq. miles with high levels of environmental inequities. The program, Tubbs said, will also work to train people for jobs in a green economy.
When it comes to long-term change, King said she’s “cautiously optimistic,” citing conversations she’s had with leaders in various sectors behind the scenes. These leaders, King said, are asking what they can do, and how they can begin to right the wrongs of systemic racism. “These are questions,” she says, “that I’ve never heard before.”
This article is part of #TIME100Talks: Finding Hope, a special series featuring leaders across different fields encouraging action toward a better world. Want more? Sign up for access to more virtual events, including live conversations with influential newsmakers.