Why so few takers for guaranteed basic income in California?

Earlier this year we learned that Michael Tubbs, the new mayor of Stockton, California, was moving ahead with a few test programs involving a guaranteed basic income for some residents of his city. A couple of these proposals involved paying residents not to commit violent crimes, but a separate plan simply involved having a limited number of citizens signing up to get a monthly check, no questions asked. That project is now being rolled out, but there’s a curious phenomenon taking shape in Stockton. For some reason, people don’t seem terribly anxious to sign up for free money. (CBS Sacramento)

A team of independent researchers randomly selected 1,200 households where the median income is at or below $46,000. From the group, 100 will be selected to receive $500 a month for 18 months. But the response has been slow.

“We’re looking for at least half of the folks who have received the letter to respond back because it gives the evaluators a chance to select the 100 people from that group,” said Tubbs.

SEED is looking to study how an extra $500 will impact people’s health and stress level. They are looking to see if people feel financially secure.

In order to make this experiment in social engineering work, the city wants at least 600 people out of the 1,200 selected to respond and sign up for the program. From that group, 100 will be picked to receive the free checks. But strangely, they’re not getting close to the number they need yet. People simply aren’t sending back the forms.

Why? One reason might be at least hinted at in the messaging that City Hall is sending out. They’re appealing to people to believe that the letters aren’t some sort of scam or just a marketing trick. That makes a lot of sense if you think about it. If you received a letter in your mailbox out of the blue asking if you would like a monthly check for $500 for the next year and a half, what would you think? I’m fairly sure I’d toss it in the recycling pile without opening it. Sending in my personal information to some unknown individual for the promise of “free money” just sounds like it has to be a scam.

The Mayor’s plan also seems to target those who might not be 100% on the side of law and order. (Remember the plan to pay people not to commit violent crimes.) Do you suppose there might be an inherent level of distrust when it comes to a letter in the mail asking you to confirm your identity and address for the government? That might be putting some potential recipients off as well.

In the end, the programs that Tubbs is putting in place may still provide some enlightening data. Free money may well reduce people’s stress levels and make them generally happier and more secure. It could also improve their ability to pay their bills on time. But we’re talking about a pilot program that will involve only 100 people in a city of more than 300K residents. And it’s an economically disadvantaged area, so a significant portion of that population will be in the qualifying low-income bracket. They barely found the money for the 100 recipients on a limited basis. How would they ever expand such a program to cover everyone who would benefit from it?