An EPIC Mission: End Poverty in California

Nonprofit founded by former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs has been on listening tour since early 2022

PUBLISHED DEC 10, 2023 5:21 P.M.
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An EPIC listening session in Humboldt County. The organization plans to conduct similar events in all 58 California counties.

An EPIC listening session in Humboldt County. The organization plans to conduct similar events in all 58 California counties.   Courtesy EPIC

Devon Gray knows what he’s up against.

Gray is the president of End Poverty in California, or EPIC, a nonprofit founded in 2022 by former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, who is now a special adviser to Gov. Gavin Newsom. Since early last year, EPIC has been on a listening tour around the state, hearing stories from people experiencing poverty.

EPIC has also engaged in other activities, including producing a 45-minute documentary, “Power & Poverty,” which challenges a conventional narrative some people have about poverty: that it’s tied to individual shortcomings, such as drug abuse, laziness or being financially irresponsible, rather than societal failures. It’s a pernicious but enduring narrative in America and Gray has thoughts on why this is.

“The reason why those myths are able to persist for so long, I think, is we live in a very siloed world,” says Gray, who spoke by phone recently with California Local. “We live in segregated communities, in segregated workplaces.”

“Too often, people who aren’t experiencing poverty and have never experienced poverty only get to see poverty from a distance,” he says, “either from their car or through media. And those are some of the places—and particularly in media—where those bad narratives go more or less unchallenged.”

It’s a major undertaking to reach people experiencing poverty and change the hearts and minds of people who are better off financially. But EPIC might be having some early successes with its work.

The End Poverty Listening Tour

Since its first stop in Compton on Feb. 3, 2022, EPIC’s listening tour has taken it to 20 counties thus far, with the organization hoping to reach all 58 of California’s counties by the end of 2026. “The goal is for us to be able to better understand what people are experiencing,” Gray says.

The stops are places like Napa’s Puertas Abiertas Community Resource Center, where in August EPIC sat down with 40 people of Latinx descent who work jobs like picking grapes or cleaning hotels. It’s a struggle for them to get by, as Gray and another EPIC representative, Greg Kaufmann wrote in the Napa Valley Register in October.

“Their experiences are further evidence that an abundance of profits in this state are not changing the lives of the working poor,” Gray and Kaufmann wrote. “As one woman who works two jobs and whose husband is a former farmworker on disability put it, ‘California is not what it looks like.’”

Other tour stops have included Ohlone Elementary School in Pajaro, the Young Women’s Freedom Center in Los Angeles and, All Home CA in Antioch.

Michael Tubbs is uniquely situated to connect with people, in part because his story is unusual for a politician. After  growing up in poverty, Tubbs became the youngest mayor in the country when elected in 2016, and achieved national acclaim for pioneering a privately funded universal basic income program for his city during his time in office. (His defeat in 2020, which followed a relentless disinformation campaign orchestrated by a local blogger, in a city with no reliable news media, also made national headlines as the worst example of what happens to democracy in a “news desert.”)

Tubbs wasn’t available for interview for this article due to being out on paternity leave. A Los Angeles Times reporter covered his visit to Antioch, which provides a window into another part of EPIC’s approach: Their work isn’t just about listening for the sake of listening. They turn what they hear into policy advocacy in the state legislature. And there’s an organizing component to this work as well.

“The answers can come on high, but really it’s in communities organizing and building power,” Tubbs said in Antioch. “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.”

EPIC: Having an Impact

Census data shows that 12.2 percent of Californians were living in poverty as of mid-20224.7 million people who are barely surviving in America’s wealthiest state. Clearly, improving conditions for the Golden State’s most economically vulnerable people will require making significant structural changes that include changes in the law. EPIC is also focusing its efforts on that big task. Aside from positive media coverage, EPIC has had some wins in the state legislature.

“We've put some real points on the board,” Gray says.

EPIC worked with Sen. Nancy Skinner, whose office didn’t respond to a request for comment, on SB 854, the Hope, Opportunity, Perseverance, and Empowerment for Children Act of 2022. This bill proposed creating trust accounts for California’s estimated 30,000 children who lost a parent or their primary caregiver due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and also helping provide funds for long-term foster youth.

While the bill didn’t pass, Skinner’s office notes that a major aspect of the SB 854 was included in the 2022-23 state budget, and that California has become the first state to create these types of accounts. Gray says the bill led to $100 million in one-time funding, and ongoing funding of $10 million.

Skinner has since introduced another bill, SB 242, to help ensure that the funds these children and foster youth receive aren’t counted as income. This is an important part of this work, since if these funds are counted as income, it could affect if people who receive them qualify for benefits.

“While we're still in the implementation process right now, we're heavily involved in that as an organization,” Gray says. “It’s probably our biggest priority going into next year as well, getting this off the ground.”

Still, if the early results are any guide, this will be far from the only thing EPIC does.

Correction, 12/21/23: A previous version of this article stated that Michael Tubbs conducts each of EPIC's listening sessions. This is incorrect.

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