Grace in her at-home day care.
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. Read the stories of Laura, Greg, Danielle, and Phyllis for more about what a basic-income policy looks like for real people.
I visit Grace at her apartment in an affordable-housing complex in one of the city’s “hot zones” — so called for their high crime rate. It’s three days before the first disbursement. We sit side by side on a bed in her living room, which is otherwise empty except for a crib and a large playpen containing a few toys and stuffed animals. Grace’s 1-year-old daughter, Jackie, is with her father so Grace can focus on her career. She and Jackie’s father are “on a kind of break,” she says.
Grace tells me she just got back from a ski trip to Lake Tahoe with a group of 40 “women in tech” organized by Arielle Zuckerberg, Mark Zuckerberg’s younger sister. She shows me pictures on Facebook of herself among the women gathered in front of the ski lodge’s fireplace, all of them wearing matching facial masks. Grace doesn’t ski, so she rented the gear and bought herself a jacket and ski pants, putting about a thousand dollars on a credit card.
“Honestly, that trip wouldn’t happen if I didn’t have already the $500 as a possibility, because my credit card right now is basically maxed,” she says. “But I think it’s worthy of an investment” — especially since a successful entrepreneur friend later paid the tab.
A few years ago, Grace, who is 31, founded a start-up that aims to use artificial-intelligence-informed urban design to bring smart technologies and self-driving cars to cities. She has met with venture capitalists to pitch them on plans for updating city infrastructure to allow for cars to talk to intelligent traffic-control devices and for smart homes whose doors can be closed or heat controlled remotely. Grace is currently the only employee. Last summer, she approached the mayor’s office about positioning Stockton as a test city and has been connecting the mayor’s team with players in the self-driving-car world. The women on the ski trip could become investors or want to collaborate on the project.
Grace grew up in China. She came to the U.S. at 18 to attend an elite East Coast college on a full scholarship and has been a student on and off ever since. She has a master’s degree in East Asian studies and is now studying computer science and robotics through two online master’s programs, which she thinks will help with her start-up. So far, she has borrowed about $180,000 to cover tuition and living costs; it has ballooned to $220,000 with interest. As long as she keeps her grades up, she can put off making payments while in school — but the interest keeps growing. This sum is on top of another $25,000 in credit-card debt. I ask if owing nearly a quarter of a million dollars ever keeps her up at night.
“Not really,” she says. “If I one day decide to work for a company, my starting salary would be easily $150,000 if I don’t even do very well.” She says her LinkedIn profile regularly attracts headhunters. “I’m basically telling them I’m not hirable because I want to become a billionaire. I want to change the world.”
Grace talks fast without pausing, often staring into the distance as if toward a future she hopes to help shape: one “with a new set of rules in terms of social contract [and] understanding what role government will play in it … a world where we humans may not actually work in exchange for money anymore” and where the profit from companies like hers “will be very generously distributed among people.”
I point out that she sounds a lot like the advocates for universal basic income describing a future transformed by technology. Grace waggles her head, unsure what she thinks about the concept of UBI just yet. When she got her SEED letter, she knew about the program only because the venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, an early investor in SpaceX, had mentioned the pilot while hearing her pitch to make Stockton a smart city. (He turned her down, joking that it’d be easier to go to Mars than to transform Stockton.) “Myself, I really want people for the short term to work,” says Grace, echoing a common conception that UBI will encourage recipients not to work. (That effect has been debunked by most studies.) But like UBI’s supporters, she sees students such as herself “who are studying to create something of higher value” as worthy of society’s support. She has friends in Sweden who get public funding to study, and “in Singapore, the government actually pays you to stay.”
Grace, though, lives off loans and whatever side hustle she can manage. She tried becoming an Uber driver, but after four days of driving, the company banned her from the platform because of numerous one-star ratings. “I guess I am really not a good driver,” she says, laughing. Now she’s in the process of applying for a license to run a home-based day care. She plans on hiring someone to help so she can study while her daughter and a few other children are cared for in her home.
In the meantime, the SEED money means she can cover her rent and meet her minimum payments on her credit cards. “I really think this $500 is going to make a huge impact on my life,” she says. “Elon Musk at one point was sleeping under a desk because he couldn’t afford to have an apartment. Actually, a lot of my friends who are now doing really well in their start-ups were sleeping in cars, and any of them could just sell their hours for a salary.” She lifts her chin a little higher. “We choose not to.”
The next time I see Grace, the bed is gone from the living room, and there are three cribs in its place. A kid-size table and chairs sit against the kitchen wall. There is a colorful plastic ramp over which a baby can crawl inside the playpen. The hallway is stuffed with camera gear to offer child portraits to her day-care clients, and an upright piano sits by the kitchen to teach the children music. The day-care license has come through, but her daughter is still living with her father. Plastic accordion files overflowing with court documents cover the floor.
Since our last visit, Grace has told me more about Jackie’s situation. When her daughter was born, Grace and the father were living in an apartment in the “good” part of Stockton, but when Jackie was 4 months old, the father moved out. Grace soon ran out of diapers and was using makeshift cloth ones. She was nearly out of formula and facing homelessness once her lease ended. She looked in the phone book for some kind of social services and found a listing for Child Protective Services, which she called to ask for help. Grace sought counseling and was diagnosed with, and treated for, postpartum depression, which had been made worse with the departure of the baby’s father and losing the housing and support he had been providing. According to the CPS reports, which Grace shared with me, she told various social workers that she had thoughts of wanting to harm her baby and didn’t want to care for her anymore. But Grace maintains that she said those things only to justify the agency’s taking of Jackie. She acknowledges she needed some time apart from her daughter to get herself stable and find a new living situation. As it was, Grace ended up sleeping in her car for a few nights before moving to a local women’s shelter. Grace believes her lack of money contributed to CPS taking her child. A 2014 article published by the American Bar Association concludes that “while poverty can lead to increased rates of actual maltreatment, poverty itself is often mistaken for neglect.”
In late March, the county court awarded Jackie’s father full legal custody and Grace twice-weekly supervised visits. The court questioned Grace’s “mental stability” and said she posed a risk to her daughter, even though the results of Grace’s court-ordered psychological interview found her to be “within normal limits.” She had also voluntarily attended 20 sessions with a therapist, who said she was making progress working through the trauma of having her child taken from her.
The day after the court took away her custody, her day-care license came through, an irony Grace likes to cite in her defense. But Grace is in and out of court so frequently trying to get her daughter back that she hasn’t been able to accept any long-term clients. This morning, she is headed to the courthouse to file a petition asking for joint custody. She is representing herself because she can’t afford a lawyer. Her long black hair is slightly curled, and she’s dressed up in a pale-yellow crewneck sweater and a black knit skirt.
She has to go up to the fourth floor, where family court is located, get a number, and wait to request to file the petition; then she goes down to the first floor to wait to have the petition sent, then back up to the fourth floor to get another number and wait to show proof that the petition was mailed. In the middle of it, I run out to my car to put more money in the meter.
When I come back, another woman in the waiting room has struck up a conversation with Grace after watching her take a call for work. “What work?” I ask. Grace says she’s been providing spiritual and romantic advice through an app online. In fact, the day before, Grace worked for 16 hours straight, not even taking time to eat. She earned over $300. She is excited about her new gig because she can make her own hours and it won’t interfere with her court appearances or her studying or her work on the autonomous-car project.
It’s three hours before we get out of there. “The system is eating up all my time,” Grace complains as she walks briskly back to the car. From court, she drives to one bank to withdraw her fourth disbursement in cash and then to another bank, where she deposits it to cover her negative balance from multiple $35 overdraft charges. She has $384.03 left over, which is all her money in the world besides $10 in her purse. She hasn’t been able to afford food recently, so her neighbors have been sharing what they bring back from the food bank. In turn, she drives them to their various appointments. As we ride, Grace tells me the SEED money is basically saving her life right now. “I’m really not supposed to be in this situation,” she says. “In America, with my credentials, I should be able to actually take care of myself.”
Grace and I sit in the kid-size chairs at the kid-size table next to her kitchen. All of the day-care cribs, the playpen, and the high chairs are pushed to one side of the room. A large red suitcase sits in the middle of the floor. When Grace moves it out of the way, a little voice emanates from inside: Gee, gee-gee. The suitcase holds the toys she brings on her weekly visits with her daughter. Jackie is almost 2, and she is talking more every visit. “She’s actually surprising me with a lot of complex sentence structures,” says Grace, adding softly, “They are doing a good job teaching her.” It’s been 16 months since Jackie was taken from Grace’s care. Other than two weeks this past June, when Grace was briefly allowed unsupervised visits, she has seen her daughter only in the bleak interiors of government-approved visitation centers. She hasn’t been able to let her crawl over the colorful plastic ramp in her apartment or pound out notes on the piano or sit for her very own photo portrait. Grace isn’t allowed to take any pictures or videos of Jackie during their visits at all.
A law firm in Los Angeles has filed a pro bono appeal in the custody case. Grace is hopeful that it will be successful. Since she is in court constantly, she tells me, “I’m actually realizing that probably it is cheaper for me to become a lawyer myself.” She was just accepted to a night law school in Sacramento and is now driving one hour each way to class three to four times a week, which is adding significantly to her expenses. As a part-time night school, it’s not accredited by the ABA, which means Grace can’t get financial aid or federal loans and must pay the $1,300 monthly tuition out of pocket. It will take four years to get her degree, but she wants to use it to help other people fight CPS decisions. She is also working on some business ideas with her entrepreneur friend. (“I think he wants to date me,” Grace admits, blushing a little.) They’re developing a legal-aid app to leverage a pending change in California law that will allow nonlawyers to offer legal advice. This new “legal tech” bill, as it’s called, would make routine legal transactions more affordable. It would also automate many lawyer jobs out of existence.
Between trying to get Jackie back, pursuing the law and computer-science degrees, taking the occasional child-care client, and keeping up with her online clients’ demands for spiritual guidance, Grace has been struggling to manage her time. She has become one of the app’s most popular advisers, with hundreds of five-star reviews: “You have such a profound understanding of love, life, and relationships!,” reads one comment. She has earned a little over $7,000 since May and is no longer accruing overdraft charges. The affordable-housing complex has even bumped up her rent to reflect her rosier economic reality.
She sometimes feels guilty about receiving the SEED money. Her neighbors, who don’t have the same access to opportunities, seem more deserving of such help. Still, she thinks the Stockton demonstration has allowed her to achieve some stability. “I realize the importance of this $500. It gives me the assurance that everything’s going to be fine.” That, in turn, has helped fuel her plans for her future. “The moment when you feel like you are actually able to cover your basics, my personality just allows me to start really thinking about expansion.”
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!