universal basic income

Phyllis Knows She’s More Than Her Circumstances

Phyllis at her office. Photo: Michelle Groskopf/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.

Month One

“I said, ‘I’m going to need surgery, too.’ He said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘My thyroid. I have cancer.’’

I ring Phyllis’s doorbell, setting off a cacophony of barking inside. I can hear Phyllis directing her daughter to put this dog in the kennel, that one outside, hold on to the other one. When she finally opens the door, she’s gripping the collar of a large pit-bull mix who eyes me suspiciously. “Just stand still and let her smell you,” she says. “Come on, Bella, easy.”

Twenty minutes later, Phyllis and I are on the couch in her living room and Bella is spread across our laps. She’s my 85-pound lapdog, Phyllis says, stroking her head. A big frisky puppy, Marley, tries to join us on the couch, but Bella growls, warning her away. The two small dogs, Lilly and Max, and Phyllis’s 13-year-old daughter wander in and out. An inversion table stands in the middle of the living room. Family photos, ceramic tchotchkes, and a menorah decorate an armoire. A nail-gun compressor, two different vacuum cleaners, and a case of seltzer line the low wall marking off the dining area.
Mail and papers cover every surface; a dusting of dog hairs frosts the carpet.

A week or so before Phyllis’s SEED letter arrived, Phyllis got a call from her doctor with the results of a biopsy of a nodule on her thyroid. She was at work, on two different phone lines, registering clients for Covered California, the state’s version of Obamacare. Phyllis sells insurance and provides investment advice. She clicked over to the doctor, and he told her she had cancer that required surgery. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll talk to you Wednesday. I don’t have time to deal with this now.”

Phyllis headed straight home after work. Her husband had taken the puppy to the vet that day because she’d been limping after chasing a ball into a wall. “The minute I walked in the door, he tells me, ‘Marley broke her kneecap. She needs surgery. It’s going to cost like $7,000 or $8,000.’ He finishes telling me everything, and I said, ‘I’m going to need surgery, too.’ He said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘My thyroid. I have cancer.’ And he said, ‘Oh. Well, what are we going to do about the dog? How are we going to pay for this?’ ” Phyllis rolls her eyes at me and laughs ruefully.

Marley had the surgery that week. Phyllis maxed out an interest-free credit card for medical and veterinary expenses and put the rest on another card and told her husband that she would figure out how to pay them. Phyllis is the sole breadwinner for her family and always has been. Her husband is disabled and receives Social Security Disability Insurance. He has seven compression fractures in his thoracic spine from a back injury when he was 12 and a morphine pump installed in his stomach to control the pain.

When she got the SEED letter, she thought, Is this serious? Five hundred dollars a month for 18 months? She could use the money to pay off the dog’s surgery! “I believe in abundance,” she tells me. “I was like, ‘Okay, God, I asked for you to provide for us.’ ”

Phyllis and her husband own their home. It has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a pool and sits on a quiet street where kids ride bikes and play unattended. When I mention that her neighborhood doesn’t look like the neighborhoods of the other recipients I have visited, Phyllis says that her challenge is being self-employed. She makes enough to cover her family’s bills, but anything extra can get her under water. “My husband has, I wouldn’t say a very expensive hobby, but a hobby,” she says. “He shoots defensive pistols. He reloads his own ammunition, which does save money over the purchasing of ammunition. But he goes to competitions once or, no, well, usually two times a month.” Phyllis says she assumes she was selected by SEED because of her status as self-employed. She takes home so little income that she and her daughter qualify for MediCal, California’s version of Medicaid.

I explain that everyone was randomly selected from census tracts where the median household income is at or below Stockton’s of $46,033. There must be some poorer households nearby that balance out the wealthier ones of her neighbors’. Phyllis’s daughter, who has joined us on the couch, volunteers that there are lower-income people a couple of blocks over. Not just there, Phyllis says.

“So it wasn’t based on my tax return?” she asks.

“They had no idea what your tax return is,” I say.

“Well, thank God that I was randomly selected then,” she says.

“Yeah, we need this to pay off the surgery,” adds her daughter.

Until the mortgage crisis, their family had been pretty comfortable. In 2004, Phyllis was recruited by a national firm to teach its agents how to sell insurance. Its primary product was a time-share development in the Dominican Republic that offered investors quarterly payments. Phyllis ended up sinking $200,000 from her retirement into the product. She sold shares to her siblings, her niece, her friends, a lot of her clients. For four years, it paid out between 2 to 3 percent every three months like clockwork. Phyllis got pregnant, had her daughter. She was earning a good six-figure income and putting a little money away. They didn’t have any debt except for their house. They traveled.

Early in the spring of 2008, Phyllis hired a contractor to resurface their pool and replace the equipment. It turned out the contractor wasn’t licensed and hadn’t filed the proper permit. The city shut down the construction but her whole backyard was already dug up. She hired a new contractor, but the price went from $29,000 to $53,000. She had to take out cash advances on her credit cards to pay him. Then in September, the markets tanked and the developer went belly up. All of Phyllis’s family, friends, and clients lost everything — $5 million in total, including her own retirement money.

“It was devastating,” Phyllis says. Two of her clients filed suit against her. She struggled with the thought of having to declare bankruptcy. “You know, financial adviser? Bankruptcy? How does this go hand-in-hand? I couldn’t talk to people about insurance or finances for almost a year. I was paralyzed. I felt like an octopus was squeezing me tight, holding me captive in my circumstances.” Her husband kept telling her she needed to get her head back in the game. “So, I’d go to work every day and try to figure out what can I do today that can make a difference. My assistant at the time used to say, ‘You amaze me. If I were you, I’d stay in bed and pull the covers over my head.’ And I said, ‘Well, I have a family to support. I support you.’ ”

Phyllis filed for bankruptcy in 2010. She couldn’t get access to any credit and had to pay for everything in cash. Her parents, who are well-off, kept them afloat with $75,000 in loans and paid for her lawyer to defend her against her clients’ lawsuits. Phyllis had a mantra: “You are not defined by your circumstances. It’s how you act or react that builds your character.” She made it part of a coaching framework she developed for other business owners who had lost money and confidence during the crisis.

I ask Phyllis how financially secure she feels now. “I don’t worry in the long run.” Her parents started a college fund for Phyllis’s daughter when she was 5, and it has nearly doubled. Phyllis will also inherit money from her mother, who is 93, so she knows her daughter’s education will be taken care of. “I’m concerned about the day-to-day,” Phyliss says, “like when my husband wants to spend money on a gun or he wants to go on a trip, and it’s like, ‘Okay, let me figure out where that’s going to come from.’ ”

Phyllis scheduled her surgery to remove her thyroid for the very beginning of the year. Her throat was sore, and she couldn’t talk above a whisper for a month afterward. Her whole business is talking. And if she doesn’t work, she doesn’t earn any money. Luckily, she’d gotten herself a cancer policy three years earlier. She had no idea she’d be using it this soon. It paid $2,000 toward her treatment and another $10,000 that she could use for other expenses. She plans to put it toward her lost income and paying off the dog’s surgery and some of the other credit-card debt.

She’s not sure yet what she’ll do with the SEED money. A lot of things in the house need repair. She wants to rip out the carpets in the bedroom and put down new flooring. They never landscaped after the pool debacle, and there are mounds of dirt in the backyard with ragweed growing out of them. She says she’d like to take her family to England to visit her cousins there. She adds, sounding wistful, “If we didn’t have the dog-surgery expense, this would have been a great resource for that.”

Month Four

“I haven’t treated myself the way I should. And so now I am.”

Phyllis is showing her housekeeper where she keeps the natural cleaning products she prefers, which towels are for the dogs, and how she likes to mop. She’s going to use some of her SEED funds to hire the woman to clean her house every other week. After she’s gone, Phyllis and I sit on the couch in the den to catch up. She tells me she is excited to get some help around the house. “I can’t tell you the last time I dusted,” she says. “I haven’t treated myself the way I should. And so now I am.”

Once again, the pit bull climbs on top of us. Phyllis told me that Bella has PTSD and separation anxiety, and I’ve begun to think that the dog sits on top of Phyllis as a way to try to keep her there because she is always going: going to work, driving her daughter to school, taking her husband to the airport to fly off to one of his competitions, volunteering at the Animal Protection League and in the gift shop at her synagogue, going food shopping, cleaning out the garage, taking the recycling to the redemption center. A few days earlier, I met Phyllis at a local health-food store where she was selling olive oil specially bottled to raise money for her daughter’s choir trip to Carnegie Hall.

Phyllis tells me that she has felt a difference from the extra $500. She gained 18 pounds from her cancer medication and used the card to buy some new summer clothes. She’s pulled out the debit card to pay for a dinner that ended up being a little bit more than she expected. She says, “I am so very grateful. It really does help to relieve stress.” Especially since she has been working less because of so many health problems. “I would like to get to the point where I can start saving some of it,” she says. “But we’re not there yet.”

Month Seven

“They mentioned that were going to take their daughter to Disneyland, and I thought, Yeah, I’m probably going to use it to pay bills first.”

I arrive at Phyllis’s house on a Sunday morning. Items for a tag sale are piled in the living room. A toaster, some pottery containers, a banana tree since they don’t eat bananas, the felt-covered panels for an office-cubicle setup. “You think someone might want to buy them?” she asks hopefully. “These things were expensive.” Phyllis has a friend coming over later to help her sort through everything.

I ask how it’s going with the housecleaner.

Phyllis makes a face. “She’s come three times. I said, ‘I want you to mop the floors and do the bathrooms.’ She spent four hours just doing that, and she didn’t even mop the whole floor.” Her husband complained that she took an hour just to dust the armoire. The final straw was her dusting the blinds in the den next to the card table where her husband cleans his pistols. “An inch of dust fell onto the table,” she says. “He was livid.” She thought that having some household help would make her life easier, but listening to the complaints isn’t worth it. “So now I get the fun job of telling her this isn’t working out,” she says.

I’m curious to hear Phyllis’s thoughts about the concept of guaranteed basic income now that she’s been receiving the money for seven months. Does she want to see it continued or expanded?

“I think it’s a fantastic idea,” she tells me. “The challenge is where will the money come from on a regular basis. It can’t be taxpayer dollars,” she says firmly. Phyllis has told me that, like her husband, she leans toward Republican candidates and positions. She thinks there would have to be some kind of accountability or motivation for the recipients to show that they’ve done something meaningful with the money. She tells me about meeting early on a couple in the SEED office who had also been selected. “They mentioned that were going to take their daughter to Disneyland, and I thought, Yeah, I’m probably going to use it to pay bills first.” She lists all the unexpected expenses they’ve incurred this year so far: the cancer surgery, being out of work and not qualifying for state disability, her daughter’s braces, the dog. All the reasons why she and her family have needed, and deserved, a little help.

I suggest that some people might think that spending $8,000 for a surgery for your dog is frivolous. Phyllis frowns as she glances at Marley, who is batting a ball around the room. “Maybe,” she says. “But she was only eight months old, and my husband said, ‘Well of course we’re going to fix her. She’s got a full life ahead of her.’ ”

Phyllis’s husband and her daughter come back from the shooting range. Her daughter competed in an event that involved shooting steel plates and did pretty well. Her husband didn’t compete because his back and his knee have been bad lately. He’s standing with his shoulders hunched, looking stiff and uncomfortable, as if his t-shirt was cold and wet on his back. He says he has a couple of big matches coming up and doesn’t want to risk injuring himself. He’s headed in October to the world championship for defensive pistol shooting in Alabama. He’s hoping to win enough matches that he will move up from his current rank of expert to the very highest rank of master. When Phyllis mentioned this plane ticket as one of the things she’d recently used her SEED money for, I seize upon it in my mind as another questionable example of how she is using her money.

I don’t know Phyllis’s husband’s story. He didn’t agree to share his personal business with a stranger in the hope that the general public would find people like him deserving of a share of our country’s common resources. But I’ve picked up bits and pieces. I know that those vertebrae in his spine were crushed during a fight with his brother. That his parents divorced when he was a kid and his mom worked three jobs sometimes while also engaged in a drawn-out custody battle with his father. That he ran away from home and lived on the streets for a while. When we’re chatting one time, he tells me that for years he had to wear fentanyl patches to control his pain and would spend his days in bed, “going through withdrawals, waiting for my next dose of medicine.” In the early years of his daughter’s life, he could hardly spend any time with her. But the morphine pump changed all that. He lifts his shirt to show me the rectangular bulge under the soft white skin of his belly.
A month after he had it inserted, he took up shooting.

On that Sunday, when they get back from the range, I ask him what a defensive-pistol-shooting competition is. He gets animated as he explains it; they create scenarios as if you are being attacked, he says, “like by a gang and you have to shoot your way out.” He pantomimes dodging and hiding, while holding up an imaginary gun, his hands kicking back with the imaginary discharge. He’s nimble and graceful as he spins around the den, and his wife and daughter appear delighted to witness this display of his skill as an expert, maybe soon-to-be master, defensive pistol shooter. When he stops, he looks at me, breathing a little heavily, his eyes wide as if to ask, what do you think?

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!

Phyllis Knows She’s More Than Her Circumstances