On a poverty tour of California, an advisor to the governor chronicles agony, anger and hope

Category: Listening Sessions, Personal Stories, Updates

January 18th, 2023

ANTIOCH, Calif. —  

Michael Tubbs writes in his notebook and stars a word in black pen for importance: “agony.”

It’s impossible to wholly describe what he has learned about Californians living in poverty during his tour across the state, but that word seems to wrap it up.

The former mayor of Stockton, now the “economic mobility and opportunity” advisor to Gov. Gavin Newsom, has carried a gray notebook to 10 counties — and plans to visit the remaining 48 — as part of his work for his new nonprofit, End Poverty in California.

His mission: to listen to Californians describe their struggles, defeats and hopes and actually hear them — to end poverty “by elevating the voices of people experiencing it.”

Tubbs, 32, is revered as a national expert on guaranteed income programs for the poor. Raised by a single mother, he grew up in a low-income household in Stockton, once the largest U.S. city to declare bankruptcy, a place often judged for high crime and low literacy rates.

So what does he have to learn about poverty?

It turns out, a lot.

Along with “agony,” he has scribbled down broad thoughts and directives like “shelter is foundational” and “rewrite history.”

One note reads simply, “everyone is maxed out.”

He has had emotional epiphanies. He draws an arrow to how one woman describes her life — “living just to die”— and adds his own reaction beside it: “OMG!”

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Outwardly, there’s nothing remarkable about Tubbs’ notebook. There’s no title, no decoration. But for people like Carmen Sierra, it holds a lot of power.

In August, Sierra joins nearly 30 of her neighbors in a circle of folding chairs at the Antioch Senior Center, across from which a steady stream of ships pass through the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta to bigger cities.

Switching between English and Spanish, with her white hair pinned back, she is there to plead for help from the state with skyrocketing rent costs. She worries that she will never have grandchildren because her kids say they can’t afford it.

Longtime residents like Sierra are being priced out, they tell Tubbs, as landlords try to seize on those willing and able to pay more to live in California.

“There are 800 evictions in the pipeline,” a local official says. At one nearby apartment complex alone, there are eviction notices on 18 doors, an activist adds.

Newsom isn’t here, but this could be Sierra’s only chance to get his ear — through Tubbs.

“He promised us that if one day he became governor, he would work for our community as much as he can,” she says. “I understand it’s difficult now that he is at that table signing all the papers and new legislation, but he has to keep his promises. If you can bring the message, I’ll be so happy. We’re still waiting.”

Tubbs makes a note. He and Sierra agree that most of the folks in Sacramento writing legislation and creating policy don’t get it — and the notebook can help them understand.

Everywhere he goes, people ask him for help. But he asks for their help, too, leaning on the grassroots, community-driven style that got him elected mayor of Stockton in 2016 at age 26 — America’s youngest mayor at the time. Among those cheering his rise were Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey.

“I have to put a report together for the governor, and I need you guys’ help,” Tubbs says in Antioch, casual in jeans and sneakers. “Sometimes people think I just be talking, and it’s not really rooted in what’s actually happening. So we’re spending this whole year going throughout the state and actually hearing from people about solutions people have.”

He promises that he is a thorn in the side of officials and gives Newsom “earfuls” on behalf of people across the state, but that’s not enough.

“The answers can come on high, but really it’s in communities organizing and building power,” Tubbs says. “I’m happy to use my little bit of influence and political capital to annoy people and have conversations, but I need you to push with me.”

Some people are willing and interested in doing something to make change. Others don’t believe that change is up to them, and it’s on people like Tubbs and Newsom. Who has time to agitate and lobby? For those dedicated to simply surviving, activism is a far-off luxury.

An Amazon warehouse worker in Fresno who is struggling to support her children and elderly mother says she has stopped going to City Council meetings because she doesn’t see the point. They aren’t listening, she tells Tubbs.

“All I do is pray and pray and pray. I’m tired,” she says. “When is it going to be enough, you know? We’re just pretty much working, working, working, working.”

::

Tubbs’ own story connects him with the people he meets on his tour. His mother was 16 when he was born. His father has been serving a life sentence since 1996. He has lost friends and family to gang and gun violence.

On the tour, he talks less about his personal life than he did when he campaigned for mayor, when he told his story over and over again. But the same thing happens: A recognizable stillness comes over his audience when they realize he is one of them.

His life was not supposed to go this way — to success, he says. His options should have been “prison or death.”

A question he has been asking since he was a preteen lies at the heart of the purpose of this statewide voyage.

“How in the world did I make it? And how do I empower other people from backgrounds like mine to upset the setup?”

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According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 11.6% of Americans live in poverty. In California, it’s slightly more: 12.3%. In Tubbs’ hometown of Stockton: 16.3%.

In Fresno, a woman clutching a purse that has an image of Frida Kahlo sobs about losing her house because she and her husband, a farmworker, could no longer pay the mortgage.

“My American dream is over,” she says through a translator.

In Los Angeles, women recount how poverty landed them in jail and how poverty was waiting for them when they got out — an endless cycle of suffering.

“The moment you come up, you get set back,” one says.

In Oakland, fast-food workers allege wage theft and dangerous conditions. One woman says she’s afraid to go back to work — a co-worker’s face was cut by an angry customer who said his order was wrong — but needs the job.

Another group knowingly nods and applauds when a mother details avoiding a second job because a dollar more of income will kick her off much-needed housing aid.

Each stop on the so-called poverty tour is different, but common themes emerge.

Poor people aren’t lazy, they are exhausted; being poor is often a full-time job, where one miscalculation can lead to homelessness in an instant. Navigating the state’s support systems is confusing, and eligibility is precarious. In California, the line between the haves and have-nots is vast, while the line between needing help and qualifying for it can be razor-thin.

At nearly every stop Tubbs makes, there are desperation and tears. And everyone has questions.

“Do I have to be out on the streets to get help?”

“How can you leave the permanence of poverty?”

“What do I do now?”

With a furrowed brow, Tubbs offers up answers.

He directs people to existing programs, like legal aid for tenants fighting landlords. He promises to push for a solution to barriers to public assistance.

“What is working?” he asks.

Sometimes he can’t hide his shock.

“That’s wild to me,” he says when someone shares that they got only a three-day notice before being evicted.

Sometimes he needs a break.

“I’m sorry, could you just rewind?” he says. “Let me just pause and sort of reflect back what I’m hearing so that I make sure I leave here with an accurate understanding.”

Other times, he has nothing to say. Too often there are no answers.

“I’m enjoying not talking right now.”

A woman who tapped her 401(k) to pay rent says she plunged into a never-ending loop of referrals when she tried to get financial assistance to avoid eviction. They led nowhere.

To illustrate the disconnect separating people like her from the politicians claiming to tackle poverty, she points out that when she recently sought housing assistance, she was offered a free backpack for her child.

“How can a kid go to school with a backpack [but] without a roof over their head?” she asks, dumbfounded.

Tubbs doesn’t tell people to calm down or that things will be OK; he joins them in their anger.

“Your blood should be boiling, because we have all the tools we need to end poverty in California, yet we have so much of it,” he says at an event in Sacramento.

But sometimes, anger is pointed at him. At each stop, people want to know: Now what? What makes Tubbs different from the others?

“What are you going to do with the information that you’re taking away today? What exactly will be the end result of this?” a woman in San Bernardino County demands.

He has carved out a unique role. He’s no longer a politician, after losing reelection for Stockton mayor in 2020 to a Republican. But he has connections. He is invited to places that the people he’s trying to serve would never be. Still, he admits his limitations.

“If I was a governor, I could tell you what I’m going to do, but I’m not,” he says. “I advise the governor. So what we’re going to do is put together a summary for him and his economic staff.”

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At EPIC, the nonprofit he founded in 2022, Tubbs has outlined an ambitious plan to end poverty in the state. Before he set out on the tour, his ideas included a reformed safety net that makes it easier for people to get the help they need, higher wages across the board and “housing as a human right.”

After his first year of listening sessions, he’s adding to the list.

His next big idea is a sort of sovereign wealth fund, “where we capture some of the wealth in California and make sure everyone gets a piece.” He knows that will drop jaws, but he maintains that it shouldn’t.

“We’re not asking for anything crazy. We’re not asking for anything radical. We’re not asking for anything more than what is our God-given right to just be able to live in this golden state with dignity, to live in this golden state and be able to provide for ourselves and our children,” he says.

The tour was necessary to give his bold plans texture — to make them real, Tubbs says.

“I wanted to make sure I knew what I was talking about and that it was rooted in people’s experiences actually living it today — not the poverty I was in 30 years ago,” he says. “My experience isn’t a moat but a bridge to other experiences; it gave me a willingness to listen.”

Even with his lived experience, he has been surprised by what he has heard on the road, calling it “heart-wrenching.”

Tubbs knows what it’s like to be poor as a Black man in Stockton. He doesn’t know what it’s like to be a young Latina juggling a job and child care in Fresno, or what it’s like to be denied help because of your immigration status in Los Angeles.

He was taken aback by how common it is for working people to be on the brink of homelessness.

“I learned so much, particularly in the way poverty intersects,” he says. “It was really jarring for me.”

But many of the stories he has heard are familiar.

“What I wasn’t surprised by was how intelligent and resilient and hardworking folks living in poverty are,” he says.

He knows what it’s like to worry about food. He remembers his mother crying, just like women he has met on the road, about how to make ends meet.

He knows how the sound of gun shots makes for bad sleep.

Reading through his notebook, Tubbs seems obsessed with the frustrating existence of “the two Californias,” and he has managed to live in both — from Stockton to Stanford, with stints at Google and the White House, back to Stockton again. From voter to mayor to special advisor to the governor.

He is frustrated by a troubling juxtaposition: the stories he has heard this past year, and the practices that even progressive state leaders herald as best-in-the-nation poverty policy.

“Folks complain about poverty all the time, even though they don’t use the word ‘poverty,’” he says. “Any community talking about housing security and homelessness, you’re talking about poverty. When you’re talking about violence, you’re talking about poverty. When you’re talking about educational attainment and reading scores, you’re talking about poverty. Many of the things that frustrate us about our communities — at its core, poverty is the issue.”

Jessica Nowlan, executive director of the Young Women’s Freedom Center, in June hosted the first stop on the tour and set the tone. Her California — where young people work in the “street economy,” selling drugs or sex to get by, is the real California, she says. There is no suitable policy without voices like hers, which focus on “community-based solutions.”

“The young people we work with are figuring out how to make money every night on the streets, because there’s no other options,” she says. “And you’re next to the Twitter headquarters, and everybody has iPhones and Teslas, and there’s absolutely no onramp. There’s no ability to get there.”

Nowlan wonders if Tubbs can help people get there.

Sometime after that first stop, Tubbs wrote in his notebook a question. From the wording, it’s hard to discern who posed it — if someone asked it, or if he was asking himself.

“If you give up, who is left?”

Michael Tubbs is the Founder of EPIC and the former Mayor of Stockton.  

This article originally appeared at the Los Angeles Times.