Since February, the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration has given 130 individuals — randomly selected from neighborhoods with a median household income at or below Stockton’s of $46,033 — monthly payments of $500, no strings attached. The disbursements are part of an 18-month pilot program studying the effects of a universal basic income (UBI). Since February, I have followed five of the recipients to watch how this unexpected windfall has changed their lives.
“I feel like I had beat my body up enough 20-something years for those people.”
When I arrive, Laura is smoking on the top of the stairs outside her apartment in a sprawling affordable-housing complex on the north side of Stockton. Her Pomeranian-Yorkie, Poopee, stands beside her. “I guess they haven’t got to the gate,” she calls down after I get out of my car. The gate into the complex requires a code, but Laura told me on the phone that people keep busting through it, so I might be able to just drive in.
Laura, who is 68, moved to Stockton from Oakland five years ago in search of more affordable rents. She’d just been fired from her job at the Oracle Arena after working there for 21 years. She collects about $1,500 a month in Social Security and a small pension for her years as a union officer in the SEIU, which isn’t enough to live on in the Bay Area.
We are sitting at a tall table in her immaculate living room. Large windows overlooking the parking lot are filled from floor to ceiling with plants. Sunlight filters through their leaves. There is a sign that reads THIS HOUSE IS GOVERNED BY A POMERANIAN. Outside is less peaceful.
The new management let everything go to hell, she says. They don’t pick up the trash or maintain the buildings. People who don’t live there gathered to party in the parking lot below her window.
“They would turn their music up and smoke weed and drink at three, four, five, six in the morning,” says Laura. She tried going outside to talk to them. “They would be nice while I was down there because I’m not gonna accept you talking to me any kind of way.” But as soon as she got back upstairs, it’d be loud again.
Laura would move out if she could. “I put in a couple of applications at some other nice big affordable buildings, but most of the waiting lists here in Stockton are like three, four, five years,” she says. And she can’t afford market-rate rent. When she couldn’t take it anymore, Laura called 911. A big showing of police swooped in and took the partyers away in handcuffs. Now they hang out in one of the other lots in the back. Laura laughs. “They said, ‘There’s a crazy old black lady over there, we will find somewhere else to go.’ ”
When Laura worked at the coliseum, she developed a reputation as someone who stood up for people. While the arena was under construction and everyone was out of work, Laura started telling her co-workers to apply for unemployment. “My boss called me on the carpet in the office and told me, ‘We at the coliseum feel like we pay you guys enough so that if you’re out, you’ll be able to sustain yourself until you’re back,’ and I’m like, ‘You’re crazy.’ So after we had that conversation, I told more people because it really pissed me off.”
Laura worked in wardrobe, maintaining the uniforms for the ushers, ticket takers, security, maintenance. On big-game nights, as many as 600 employees would line up in front of the bay window where Laura and her colleagues would distribute the uniforms. She rolled heavy wardrobe racks, put on and took off hundreds of uniforms from their hangers, buttoning and zipping over and over, packed everything to send out for dry cleaning, washed, dried, and ironed the rest. Over time, Laura has had two carpal-tunnel surgeries and six operations for trigger finger.
“What’s trigger finger?” I ask.
Laura holds up her hands like she’s going to run her nails down a chalkboard. “Your fingers curl forward like claws and you can’t open them,” she says. She and her co-workers were all categorized as part time so the coliseum could avoid having to provide benefits. Because she worked so many hours, it had to cover her medical insurance, but management didn’t want to pay for her surgeries. They claimed that her work didn’t involve repetitive motions. She fought the coliseum on it, and it paid. After she healed, Laura went back to work, sleeping on the desk on a pile of coats on the nights she worked a double.
In 2005, Laura was elected secretary-treasurer of her chapter, the Local 1877, which covered not only the workers at the coliseum but also janitors, airport workers, and security officers, around 30,000 members in Northern California at the time. During the 2008 presidential election, the SEIU endorsed Barack Obama, injecting a ton of cash into his race and committing an army of foot soldiers. Laura was sent on the road for four months, first to Texas and then to Columbus, Ohio.
When she got to Ohio in September, Obama was trailing in the polls. She knocked on doors from 7 in the morning to 7 at night. Her feet swelled up so badly she couldn’t fit them in her shoes, and she walked in her socks on the last day. But they turned Ohio blue, she tells me, her smoker’s voice filled with pride. She got a plaque with Obama’s face on it. “It looks like bronze,” she says. “It’s probably not, it’s something cheaper, but it’s really, really nice.”
The next presidential election, in 2012, Laura’s local sent her to Las Vegas, canvassing for six months this time. (Thanks to her union contract, the coliseum had to let her go.) During the last week she was there, she slipped in the bathroom. She doesn’t know if she blacked out or if she fell. “But I woke up and I was laying on the floor and I couldn’t walk.”
She returned to Oakland, where she had arthroscopic surgery on her knee, which helped a little, but what she really needed was her knee replaced. But that would put her out of work for much longer, and the coliseum denied her workmen’s-compensation claim since her injury didn’t happen on the job site. It hurt to walk, so she asked for a light-duty assignment. But management refused.
The union gave her office work for eight or nine months. “Then they told me they couldn’t afford it anymore.” The coliseum said she could come back to the wardrobe department, she refused, and they fired her.
“I feel like I had beat my body up enough 20-something years for those people, and I refused to do it when I was already all busted up.” Laura stops talking for a moment and struggles to hold my gaze. Her fist is balled tight on the table.
“As long as you have a job, you have dignity,” Laura says. “And I felt like I lost mine when I lost my job.” She also lost her ability to support herself. She’d been making close to $20 an hour, so she had no trouble meeting her bills. Now, after she pays her rent, car note and insurance, and electric bill, she has barely anything left each month for gas, food, dog food, cigarettes, and any other expenses. She cut off her cable and internet and goes to the food bank. Her son, who lives with her, contributes what he can.
She’s racked up nearly $2,000 in credit-card debt. She is hoping to use the SEED money to wipe it out and take care of the car repairs she’d been putting off. There’s one other thing she’d like to do with her money, she tells me hesitantly. “I have a brand-new great-granddaughter.” And she’d really like to rent a reliable car and have her son drive her down to Los Angeles to meet her.
Laura helped raise some of her grandkids. She’s always been the one to bring her family together. “Thanksgiving, Christmas, Fourth of July. I cook and they can come eat and hang out for a while.” A tall baker’s rack in her kitchen is filled with ten different cast-iron pans, lobster pots, a bread machine, an ice-cream maker, a pressure cooker, an electronic roasting pan. But the last time she had everyone over, she had to ask them to bring some of the food and kick in money. “And that’s kind of different for me,” she says, her voice thick. She still gets all the grandkids birthday presents, but it’s just a small gift card now and she no longer springs for fancy boxes to send them in. This isn’t how she’d pictured her retirement. “I’ve even had thoughts that I wish I didn’t work like I was supposed to all these years and do the right thing. ’Cause for what?”
“All of a sudden everything went black.”
I reach Laura on the phone a few days before she’s due to receive her second installment. When I ask how it feels to have a little extra money in her pocket, she says: “I think I haven’t been seeing these wrinkles up here for a month really.” Being able to take care of her car note, which she was behind on, and to have the money to replace her shocks and her battery, is a big relief. At the doctor’s recently, where she had to perform a stress test, he noticed that her blood pressure was lower too.
The doctor has her wearing a heart monitor to try to get to the bottom of some dizzy spells she’s having. The first time it happened, she was sitting on her patio talking to a friend. The next thing she knew she was lying facedown with a broken tooth. About six months ago, it happened when she was driving on the highway with her granddaughter. “It was raining cats and dogs and it was heck of traffic,” Laura says. “All of a sudden everything went black.” Laura managed to pull the car into the shrubs on the side of the road, where she waited until her vision came back. “I never lost total consciousness, but it scared the mess out of me,” she says.
She just celebrated her son’s birthday. She made him a crab boil at his request and bought him some new jeans and a nice leather Levi Strauss jacket that was marked down from $150 to $30. “He’s a grown-ass man,” she says, “but he is still my kid, and I don’t like him looking crazy when he has to go out and do things.” It made her feel good to be able to afford to do this for him.
When I ask what she thinks she’ll do with her next installment, she says, “Definitely pay bills. There’s always some bill demanding to be paid. But I want to get in the mode of getting ready to try and go see my great-granddaughter.” She’s been getting on her son to figure out when he can drive her down there.
“I’m not dependent on anyone. I’ve never been, and I don’t want to be.”
The next time I’m in town, I accompany Laura to a doctor’s appointment for her hip. Her knee keeps giving out when she sits down, so she slams down on her hip, and now she can barely walk. Five years later, she’s still waiting on that knee replacement. When we pass over a speed bump on our way out of the complex, I see her wince.
There are no open handicapped-parking spots near the entrance of the health center, and we have to walk a long distance. Laura is using a cane she inherited from a neighbor. As we make our way, she tells me how tired she’s been since her son started working the overnight shift at a gas station down the street. She can’t sleep from worry. There was a recent shooting on her street. And a guy was murdered in a laundromat in a nearby shopping center. Then two more people were killed during a vigil for the victim.
We finally reach the entrance to the health center. The neighborhood is rough, Laura tells me. “Not that I haven’t ever dealt with the rough, but not on this scale.”
When we meet up after the appointment, Laura is feeling a bit better. Her doctor has given her a shot for her hip and told her that her heart appears very healthy. The bad news is that they still don’t know why she blacked out. If it happens again, he wants her to go back to the neurologist, which means she could lose her license. “I’m not dependent on anyone. I’ve never been, and I don’t want to be,” she says when I ask if she has anyone to give her rides.
Thinking about her future can get overwhelming fast. But she picked up an application at a new clothing store across the street. If she can get to the point where she’s able to stand for longer periods of time, she is thinking of trying to pick up some hours there so at least she’ll have some extra money.
In the meantime, the SEED money is helping. Once she got her car fixed, she was able to resume visiting her older son, who is in prison near Sacramento, which she thinks helps him to serve better time. She’s been paying more than the minimum balance on her credit cards. She hops she can wipe them out by the time the program is over. She’s thinking about doubling up on her car payments, too. “That way, I’ll be okay with maybe being able to find a place a little bit more expensive on the rent.”
“When I don’t have the SEED money anymore, it’s gonna be real hectic.”
The next time I meet Laura, she’s not using the cane anymore, but another health issue recently landed her in the emergency room. She had a tingling feeling down her right arm, and she couldn’t lift it above her waist. “It felt like a stroke. It was kind of scary, so I called the ambulance.” Her doctor diagnosed her with rheumatoid arthritis. The trip cost $3,000. She’s not sure yet how much she’ll have to pay. “So my SEED program is gonna help me on that,” she says.
Her rent went up almost a hundred dollars, which means she has only $250 left after her car and utilities are paid. She says that she needs to start looking for another place. “But talking to people that are moving — it’s rough out there.” It’s getting rougher here, too. A young man who lived in the complex across the street was murdered. Then a few weeks ago, some kids threw a boulder through the sliding glass door of her downstairs neighbors’ apartment and took everything of value. “So I’m up all night. Every time Poopee would bark, I’m running to look to see if somebody is going back into their place.”
These vandals broke into three more apartments in the complex and busted the windows of six or seven cars. It doesn’t do any good to complain to the security guard. “The guy got pissed off because I was hollering at him. I’m like, ‘Well, can you hear me now? We tell you all the time about this stuff.’ ” But she has to be careful or she could get evicted, and then where would she go?
“When I don’t have the SEED money anymore, it’s gonna be real hectic,” she says. “What I’m really looking at is trying to get my health together and then go find me a little piece of job somewhere.” Her biggest concern now is ending up homeless, which is why she decided to focus on getting her car in good working order. “I know a lot of shelters don’t let them bring their dogs. But I’m not going to stay in a shelter if my dog can’t stay there. So I’ll be sleeping outside in my car.”
The one bright spot is that she got to see her new great-granddaughter. Her grandson, whom she helped raise, has a good job now at a local warehouse. He rented an SUV and drove her down to L.A., where he got them an Airbnb for a few nights. “I had to listen to that rap all the way to L.A.,” she says, laughing. “But it was really nice. I thoroughly enjoyed it.” He wouldn’t let her contribute other than a little gas money and a meal or two. “I did this for you,” he told her. “All the things that you’ve done for me in my life, I feel like I needed to do something for you.”
This project was supported by a grant from the investigative news site Capital & Main.
*A version of this article appears in the October 14, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!