universal basic income

Danielle Has Just One Goal: No Debt, No Debt, No Debt

Danielle with her daughters in her backyard. Photo: Michelle Groskopf

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. Read the stories of Grace, Laura, Greg, and Phyllis for more about what a basic-income policy looks like for real people.

Month One

When she needed extra money, Danielle would change her tax-filing status to ten dependents so she could take home enough to pay for groceries.

Danielle didn’t recognize the return address, but she opens all her mail so she took out the letter and read something about completing an online form to receive $500 a month. What is this?, she thought, wondering if it was a scam. That night, she was watching the local news and it mentioned the SEED program. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I just got that letter,’ ” she says. She filled out the questionnaire but missed a section and couldn’t use the back button to complete it. Oh well, she thought. The whole idea that someone would give her $500 a month seemed so far-fetched anyway. Then, a week or two later, she got a text saying she’d been selected to receive the money.

“It was very surreal,” she says. We’re talking in the SEED office downtown, where she has come after work to fill out the paperwork to get the debit card on which she’ll begin receiving her monthly disbursements. She has never met any of the staff before; they’ve communicated only by text, with the last message instructing her to come to this address. Her husband dropped her off, and she told him to note the building number “if anything happens to me,” she says. As I start to reassure her, she waves away my concern. “That’s just me. I worry,” she says. “I never stop worrying or having anxiety.”

Danielle wasn’t always a worrier. She’s 42 now with two daughters, who are 3 and 4 years old. But before she got married and had kids, she and her two younger sisters loved to have adventures. They all lived together in the house they’d grown up in, renting it from their parents. Danielle would get off work at ten at night — from her second shift working retail after her day job in an office — and they’d drive to the Jackson casino on the Indian reservation. The casino didn’t serve alcohol. She wasn’t much of a drinker anyway, but she loved to talk. She met her husband there when he was working as a dealer. “Some nights, we would have so much fun we went straight to work the next day,” she says.

Things started to change after her youngest sister, who had chronic asthma, died of a heart attack. She was only 25. That was in 2012. Three months later, Danielle’s father lost his job, and her parents moved back to their house, where Danielle was living with her new husband. It was a difficult time, made worse by the fact that Danielle and her husband had to carry the household financially. Her mom landed a part-time low-wage job, but her dad, who was in his 60s, couldn’t find anything. Danielle kept thinking, They’ll recoup, they’ll bounce back. But they didn’t. After a year of their living together, Danielle became pregnant and she and her husband moved out. Her parents couldn’t keep up the mortgage payments and ended up losing the house and doubling up with relatives. “I still feel really guilty,” Danielle says.

One night in 2014, she felt a sharp stabbing sensation in her chest. It was the weekend, and her husband drove her and their infant daughter to the ER. “I’m so embarrassed,” Danielle says. “He said, ‘You have heartburn.’ ” The bill for that visit was $2,500. Her daughter’s delivery was another $2,000. Soon Danielle was pregnant again, and boom, they were up to $6,500 in medical debt. They had health insurance, but until they reached the annual deductible of $9,000, their plan didn’t cover much. Danielle says she’ll never set foot in a hospital again. “If I’m bleeding and broken, you’re not taking me. I’m not going.”

She and her husband had personal loans, too, from when they were “young and dumb about their money,” credit-card bills from their wedding, extra expenses while living at her parents’ house, and the costs for two small children. Although the pair earned salaries that put them comfortably above Stockton’s median household income of $46,033 — she does admin for a small business, and he drives for a national courier ­company — they still had trouble servicing their debt and covering household bills.

When she needed extra money, Danielle would change her tax-filing status to ten dependents so she could take home an extra $70 a week to pay for groceries. But when it came time to pay their taxes, they’d end up owing thousands, which meant getting on yet another payment plan, this time to the IRS. For years, she has been keeping a color-coded Excel spreadsheet on her computer to track all the debt. They were rarely able to pay more than the minimum amounts due.

All her fights with her husband were about money. She’d have a meltdown over the unexpected cost of needing a new tire and fretted that they weren’t doing right by their children.

About a year ago, Danielle’s husband started picking up a Saturday shift, which paid time and a half and brought in as much as $600 extra each month. Danielle was determined to use this windfall to turn their situation around. She began following #­debtfreecommunity on Instagram. Couples posted pictures of themselves with a sign on which they’d written how much debt they had and how long it took for them to knock it out. $120,000 in 20 months!

Danielle went back to her spreadsheet to see what would happen if she paid more on this bill and that loan. There in the distance was a horizon where they might finally be debt free. She put her family on an austerity diet. No more grocery shopping at Walmart, where unnecessary snacks and toys somehow always made it into the cart. No more heading to the arcades or bowling for entertainment. It would be such a relief to know that when there was an emergency, they’d still be okay. Her parents and her sister, whom she hasn’t yet told about the program, are not going to be able to recognize her. “ ‘What’s wrong with Danielle?’ ” they’ll say. “ ‘Are you pregnant?,’ ” she jokes. “I know some people might go absolutely crazy: I’m going to buy this and … I don’t want to buy anything! I want to pay this off!”

As we begin to wrap up, Danielle gets teary-eyed saying how humbled she feels by the opportunity. “Maybe somebody would deserve it better,” she says. “But at the same time, maybe this is my chance. Maybe this is my moment of hope.”

Month Four

“This is totally awesome. I feel less stress. I’m not screaming as much.”

I pull up outside the small ranch house on a quiet street in one of Stockton’s older neighborhoods. The house looks a little unloved from the outside, with tall grass and a broken shade in the front window. Danielle’s waiting in the screen doorway. Kid-size shadows move behind her; the dog sounds her alarm. It’s Saturday morning, and Danielle’s husband is working the extra shift. Her older daughter is stamping quietly on a low table in the corner of the living room, and the younger one is playing in the bedroom the two sisters share.

“I am kind of excited to talk,” she says as soon as we sit down in a pair of recliners. She wants to provide as much feedback as possible because she’s hoping the program will take off. “The only thing that I think that would have been even more helpful is maybe like a place that we could go and seek tips and suggestions.” She knows she can spend the money however she wants and doesn’t even have to tell anyone what her experience is like. “But why wouldn’t I want to say, ‘This is totally awesome. It’s making me feel better. I feel less stress. I’m not screaming as much.’ Unless, I guess, I was using it frivolously.”

She’d already told me on the phone how she’d used the money to help pay down their debts, and the $500 was having the most amazing effect on her husband. “I don’t want to say he’s competing with me, but …” He’s been working every Saturday to match it and then some.

She has updated her spreadsheet and thinks they’ll be able to pay off their $60,000 in debt, including their car payments, by September 2020, one month after the SEED program ends. Then they should have some expendable income to put toward buying a house or starting a college fund or even just renting a nicer home somewhere, with central air-­conditioning, where they can have their friends over to watch the game. That’s her plan as long as everyone behaves, as she calls it, meaning if they don’t have any unexpected expenses. By “everyone,” she’s referring to her parents and sister, too.

No one in her family talks much about her parents’ personal business, but Danielle is painfully aware that they went from being solidly middle class to qualifying for food stamps in three short years. Where she can, she has been letting the SEED money trickle down. Driving to her first appointment to complete her paperwork, she noticed a spare tire on her sister’s car, so she bought her a new tire on her credit card. A few months later, they had a big family wedding, and Danielle took care of the $60 alteration on her sister’s dress. Then there was a $150 speeding ticket. Her sister works full time, but her husband has a big alimony payment and Danielle knows they struggle.

“That’s how my family works,” she says. “We all pick each other up, and that’s how we keep going.” In fact, Danielle and her husband’s lives wouldn’t work without her family’s help. Her father arrives at seven every morning to watch her two girls and her nephew. Danielle takes her dad’s car to work, since her husband needs their car to get to his job. Her mother arrives in the afternoon when she gets off her part-time position at a school, so her dad can get a break. It’s a delicate dance of scheduling and car shuffling that depends on nobody getting sick and nothing breaking down.

Danielle pays her parents for their help, although they don’t ask her to. If they had to send the girls to day care outside the home, it would cost a lot more. And Danielle’s happy to provide her father with some income, since he still hasn’t found a job. With her oldest starting school in August and her youngest a year behind, they won’t be needing his help much longer.

When I come back a few nights later, the TV is on. The Dodgers are playing Atlanta and losing. Danielle’s husband pulls up a folding chair to join me and Danielle in the recliners. A tall man with a surprisingly soft voice, he tells me he has noticed a big change in his wife over the past few months and in himself, too. Before, he didn’t have much energy to do anything else when he worked the six days. “I was just tired,” he says. “I had chores to do on Sunday, the one day I had off.” He couldn’t get around to mowing the lawn, which his father-in-law would rib him about. Even if he did want to go somewhere, Danielle wouldn’t let them spend any money because they have to pay the bills. But with the extra funds coming in from SEED, his outlook has improved. He has been taking the girls to some parks they’ve found, hidden pockets in the nicer parts of town. He’s teaching them T-ball. His older girl has a good arm.

I suggest he could have viewed the extra money as an opportunity to work less and spend more time with his family. “I didn’t even think about it, honestly,” he says. He just wants to get rid of their debt.

The couple recently received another boost from Trump’s new tax plan. With the doubling of the standard deduction and the child credits, Danielle explains, they owed only $120 on their federal return and even got a little back from the state. That’s never happened before. “I know it’s the Trump thing,” she says. “I’m not very political, but it’s like, Wow, this really helped us” — much more so than some of their homeowning friends.

Danielle talks about all the little ways they try to save money: waiting until a movie goes to DVD, eating beans and rice or spaghetti, buying her kids clothes at the 90 percent-off sales, regifting gift cards to avoid having to buy presents. Her husband nods along. She tracks where every last dollar goes. He’ll even call to double-check before spending $5 on lunch. “I like the fact that she keeps reminding me of the finish line,” he says. “It’s not like I’m just grinding six days a week, every single week, for nothing. That would be depressing.”

Month Seven

Another side effect of reducing their financial stress: “We have more love for each other.”

Danielle and I sit at a picnic table as her two girls climb on a play structure in a small park. We’re in an upscale development in the Spanos Park neighborhood, named for Alex Spanos, a billionaire real-estate developer who owned the Los Angeles Chargers. Born and raised in Stockton, he got his start borrowing $800 from a bank to buy a truck that he drove around to farms, selling sandwiches to migrant workers. Now his name is stamped on cultural institutions, business parks, neighborhoods, and streets across the city. “Those are hero stories to me,” Danielle says. “Start from the bottom and have goals and get there.”

Today is the first day Danielle’s husband has been able to pick up the Saturday shift in months. The trade wars have been hurting business, and the company is cutting back on overtime. Anyway, they’ve been treating the duration of the SEED demonstration like a sprint, scrimping and working all the time, and Danielle confesses that her husband was starting to get a little burned out.

But an opportunity has just come up for him to trade his swing shift for a steady one in a nearby city. It’s a route her husband loves in a beautiful area with none of the drama that can happen in Stockton. (He has co-workers who have been robbed trying to deliver a package in certain neighborhoods.) It would be a relief to know he was safe every day and to have his schedule set now that their oldest has started school. Even though it will be a slight pay cut, he told his boss he’d take it. With the SEED money, they can afford for him to earn a little less, and Danielle wants him to be happy. Another side effect of reducing their financial stress: “We have more love for each other,” she says.

Both Danielle and her husband want to be involved parents. He took off work for the first two days of school so he could bring his daughter and meet the teachers and the other parents and kids. Danielle jokes that he was going to bring a lawn chair and sit outside all day. For her part, she bought everything on the teacher’s wish list: all the wipes, paper towels, and boxes of tissues, spending nearly $60. “We could afford it,” Danielle says. “Imagine if the teacher had to pay for all that?” She can’t wait to make Valentine’s Day cards and go on field trips. Her boss will likely retire before too long, and when he does, she’s hoping to work for the school district. Her father just started working for the school district himself, getting a job as a part-time custodian. Danielle still hasn’t told her family about SEED, but she thinks her own determination to improve their financial situation is rubbing off. Her parents are thinking about finally getting their own place.

As we talk, Danielle keeps an eye on her girls. Every so often, her gaze wanders to the duplex homes circling the park. The hedges are clipped, the lawns are lush and tamed, the woodwork is crisply painted. “I mean, it’s just so nice,” she says, sighing. “If the neighbors knew each other, this would be a great area to have their little barbecue.” That’s her idea of the American Dream, she tells me: owning a home in a nice neighborhood with a good school, where people know their neighbors and get together once in a while. She’s still on track to get rid of their debt one month after the SEED program ends. By October of next year, they’ll start saving to buy a house. She has looked at the listings online. “Not to buy, just a dream for now.”

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!

Danielle Has Just One Goal: No Debt, No Debt, No Debt