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 haven’t been really getting anywhere. Just been working. to make plans but never follow through with the plan.”
The day before the first $500 installment hits, I meet Greg at his house on the north side of Stockton. Small ranch homes with three-car garages line the street. Cars pack the driveways, one behind the other, suggesting households with too many adults in them. We were supposed to meet elsewhere, but Greg’s car is leaking brake fluid and he barely made it home from work. When I arrive, the 1999 white Integra is sitting in the driveway with its hood up.
Greg comes out in jeans and a dark T-shirt. He has a short goatee, and his face is covered in freckles, which make him look younger than his 30 years. His head is shaved, and he rubs it a lot when he talks. Later, he’ll tell me he has gray hairs from stressing too much. Greg has four kids, two girls and two boys, who range in age from 2 to 8.
We drive to a park and talk in my rental car. Greg tells me he’s going to try to sell the Integra tonight because he doesn’t want to bother fixing it. He has been saving up for a new car, an older BMW for $1,100. “It’s tagged and smogged and good to go,” he says. He just needs his $500 tomorrow morning and somebody to drive him. Greg plans to use future SEED disbursements to pay off his debts. “So by next year, I’ll be able to possibly get me and my kids a house or something like that. Get us going instead of just the same cycle going over and over again.”
He and the two older kids have lived at his mom’s for the past five years. She takes them to school and helps with their homework. He sees his other two kids, born to two different girlfriends, on the weekends. He has been working full time at a salvage lot, where he makes a bit more than minimum wage and even gets four paid holidays. “It’s a job I’ve been trying to get for years,” he says. He can get a discount for any car parts he needs. He can also buy really cheaply any of the stuff that comes inside the cars — gaming systems, laptops, cameras — people’s whole lives sometimes, before their vehicle got repossessed or they sold it with everything inside. His job is to clean the cars and drain all the fluids before the customers pick them for parts. The hardest job is cleaning out cars that people have been living in. “There’s urine on clothes, feces.”
Compared with what he’s been through, Greg’s life now is relatively stable. When he was growing up, both his parents worked, but his father kept blowing their money buying fixer-upper cars that he never got around to fixing up. They divorced when Greg was in fifth grade, but even before the split was official, his dad had drifted in and out of his life, upsetting any stability his mom managed to achieve. There were stints on welfare and living in hotels that catered to residents who couldn’t afford a security deposit, and even a spell in a homeless shelter. When I suggest that this upbringing sounds pretty rough, Greg shrugs. “When you’re used to stuff, you’re used to stuff, you know.”
He started working his senior year in high school, mostly part-time minimum-wage jobs with no benefits. When he married in 2009, he and his wife moved with his brother and mom into a place their dad had found. Before long, Greg’s wife was pregnant. He started taking college classes online through Everest College, working toward an associate’s degree in crime-scene investigation. The ads practically guaranteed a job with starting salaries at $30,000. “I was shocked that I passed my classes with C’s,” Greg says. “For my first time going to college, I was like, That’s pretty good.”
He and his brother had been paying their father the rent every month, but their dad wasn’t passing the money along to the landlord. They got kicked out. “Everything just collapsed,” Greg says, “and there was no time to do school at all.” They ended up at the same hotel where he’d lived as a kid. That one semester of college left him with nearly $9,000 of student-loan debt. Three years later, California brought a suit against the network of for-profit colleges of which Everest was a part for deceiving students with inflated job-placement promises and degrees of little value, winning a $1.2 billion settlement. But Greg still owes the amount he borrowed. Loan-relief programs don’t apply to him because he never graduated.
The lowest point came a year later. Greg’s housing fell apart yet again. His father was fixing vehicles on a ranch and said he could get Greg on the payroll. Greg packed up his young family and moved out there, but there wasn’t much work. “I had to wait a month just to get paid one check.” He had his daughter to feed and a brand-new baby boy to take care of. They applied for welfare. When it came through, his wife took off. “She left me and the kids without nothing, the cash or the food stamps. We were starving.”
Eventually, he made his way back to Stockton, divorced his wife, and gained custody of their kids. He’s done with his dad, too. His last words for Greg, sent in a text, were: “It’s every man for himself.” Greg laughs. “That’s literally what he wrote.”
He hopes the SEED program can help get him and his kids more established. “I haven’t been really getting anywhere,” he says. “Just been working. Trying to make plans but never follow through with the plan.” He says he just tries to keep his head clear. “And take care of my kids the best that I can. Show them that I’m here at least.”
The next day, I go with Greg to buy the BMW from a guy about his father’s age. He takes it for a test-drive, speeding down the empty streets, remarking at how well it hugs the curves. When he brings it back, he and the seller trade compliments about the German engineering, then Greg counts out the hundred-dollar bills into the man’s hand. “Greenbacks,” the man says. “It feels good.”
Greg had told me that he stays away from car notes, but he decided to use the $500 from SEED to cover the monthly auto payment.
I talk to Greg on the phone a week after he receives his second installment. The BMW is gone, sold for $700 less than he paid for it, because the car’s paperwork wasn’t in order. “Nobody wants to deal with it,” he says sheepishly. He got the Integra running again, but then he got into an accident. Everyone was all right, but the car was wrecked. Luckily, he’d just picked out a 2011 Camaro from a used-car lot, which he is planning on getting tomorrow.
Greg had told me that he stays away from car notes, but after talking with his girlfriend, he decided to use the $500 from SEED to cover the monthly auto payment of $415. “I don’t want no more projects,” he says. The Camaro will be the nicest car he has ever owned. He thinks it might open some doors for him. His friend’s sister knows about a job as an orderly at a hospital, and the right candidate would have to have a reliable car. And paying on the car note should help improve his credit.
“My mind runs wild with it. It’s just shooting straight up till it’s gone. It’s like, ‘Oh, you could end up with nothing.’’
I wait in my rental car in a park. Greg pulls up in the Camaro. It’s gray and muscly, and he revs it a second before he turns it off. When he gets out, I’m taken aback by his appearance. He has lost about 25 pounds, and his face looks lined and haggard. He’s just come from the doctor’s office, where he had an X-ray done of his neck. He’s been experiencing a strange tingling down it lately.
Two months ago, he started feeling nauseated, and since then he’s been in and out of the doctor’s, trying to figure out what’s wrong with him. As we talk, we walk on the path running along the perimeter of the park. Greg is walking fast, and I have to jog every few steps to keep up with him. He tells me he has been having aches and pains, headaches. “Not in the mood to eat anything,” he says. When he gets home from work, he just sits on his bed and watches YouTube or does nothing at all.
I wonder if anyone has suggested he might be depressed. “It could be that. Depression and anxiety. It all weighs down on me,” he says. He’ll typically start thinking about a bill and what will happen if he doesn’t pay it. “My mind runs wild with it. It’s just shooting straight up till it’s gone. It’s like, ‘Oh, you could end up with nothing.’
“I’m still trying to get out of that cycle,” he says, running his hand up the back of his head. “I’ve got to stop buying so many cars.” It’s been a pattern for years. He’ll buy a car he likes or thinks is a good price, then once he drives it a few times, he starts to lose interest. But he’s not like his father. “He was an idiot,” says Greg. “He didn’t take care of his bills first.” Besides the Camaro, Greg has bought another BMW and a Honda Civic. He shares that he’s been regretting buying the Camaro, because he thinks it was overpriced. “But my girl talked me into it, and I talked myself into it. So it’s either deal with it or take it back in and deal with the bad credit.” He laughs. “I already got bad credit. It’s gonna be worse.”
Does he think he would have found financial-literacy classes helpful? It’s a suggestion many people make when discussing giving money to those who don’t have a lot of it. “I know how to handle my money,” Greg says, sounding indignant. He just does stupid things sometimes. “And I try to have a little fun.”
He doesn’t believe the SEED money led him to buy more cars. It has given him more stability, he says. “I mean, shoot, if I didn’t have it, I’d be coming out of pocket and wouldn’t have — ” He pauses for a minute. “Well, I wouldn’t have a Camaro, that’s for sure.” The way he says this, I don’t know if he thinks that would have been a good thing or a bad thing.
Part of the point of making basic income universal is for the government to get out of the business of sorting the population into the deserving and the undeserving.
I stand in Greg’s driveway, watching over his shoulder as he leans under the dashboard of his new 2006 Mitsubishi Eclipse to install a stereo he just bought from his friend. There’s a 1994 Civic in the driveway that he’s fixing up to sell. He has bought and sold a couple more Integras and another Civic or two, probably ten cars in all since the beginning of the year. But the Camaro’s gone. He had to eat his $2,500 deposit and the two months of payments he made. If they can’t sell the car for his outstanding loan amount, he’ll have to pay the difference for that, too.
But he’s happy to have gotten rid of the payment. He’s eating again and has regained the weight he lost and then some. “As soon as I can make some space in the garage, I want to get back to lifting weights like I did in high school,” he says.
He looks up and smiles. His expression no longer looks as if he’s staring down the edge of a cliff. “I stopped thinking about things all the time,” he explains when I ask what changed. “When I do think about stuff, I try not to let it get to me.” He’ll put on music or watch a funny video. Or he’ll go outside and tinker with one of his cars. “I just went back to doing what I was doing, focusing on work.”
At the salvage lot, he has almost made it through the worst of the summer heat. The temperature has been hovering around 110 degrees for the past few days. He labors in the direct sun in long-sleeved protective gear and has to drink water every half-hour. I ask if he ever looks at the weather report and thinks he doesn’t want to go to work the next morning. “Every damn day,” he says. But he got a raise of $3 an hour, so now he’s making $16. Between the extra income and the SEED money, he can get his kids clothes, tablets, shoes, and games. Whatever they might need.
He twists the radio’s wires and shoves it back into the cavity, then turns the knob. Nothing. “Oh man,” he says, sitting back onto the Mitsubishi’s black leather seats. “It’s too hot to do this now anyway.”
We drive over to the park across the avenue and sit on a bench in the shade, and I ask every question I can think of to try to understand what buying and selling all these cars means to him. “Is it fun when you buy a car?” I ask. “Do you get a little excited?”
“It depends on what it is. If it’s gonna be like a commuter, I’m not tripping. But, like, this car here” — he nods over to the Eclipse — “I’m excited by this one.” It didn’t look like that when he got it. “The light was busted, and it was sitting on a donut.” He got new tires and fixed the headlight. “I want to get it finished—painting, everything 100 percent.” He’s planning on keeping this one for a long time, he says.
I ask Greg if he’s up or down this year from his car sales. He thinks for a minute. “I might have made a little bit more or broke even,” he says.
“Really?” I say, reminding him about the Camaro and the BMW. “Shoot, I take that back now.” He pauses a moment. “It’s how it is,” he says, looking across the park and then back at me. “Yeah, so I lost.”
I tell Greg how much I appreciate his willingness to spend hours with a total stranger, sharing every last detail of his personal business. “It’s fine,” he says. “It’s all part of the program.”
Like all the other recipients I talk to, Greg wants the program to succeed. And SEED’s success will depend to some degree on whether the general public thinks Greg and the other recipients did “good things” with their money. But part of the point of making basic income universal is for the government to get out of the business of sorting the population into the deserving and the undeserving, categories that have been wrought and cast by racism. Greg has his own qualms about just giving money to people who don’t want to work. In the park, he tells me, “Nobody can say that I’m lazy. Nobody can say that I’m not providing for my kids. Nobody can say anything to me about anything. I might have like ten different cars a month, but I still take care of my business, so nobody can take none of that from me.”
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!