The 61-year-old resident of Stockton, California, who asked that her last name be kept private, told her husband not to throw any letters away while she was visiting her sister in Oregon last year.
In the pile waiting when she returned, Virginia found a notice from the city inviting 125 residents to participate in a trial of basic income.
The city was offering a monthly stipend of $500 for 18 months.
"My husband said, 'That sounds like something that's too good to be true,'" Virginia told Business Insider. She called the city to set up a meeting.
"It was exciting and nerve-wracking," she said. "I thought, geez, there's no way I'll get that $500."
Virginia has been participating in the program, officially known as the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration, since February. It aims to test whether giving people an unconditional stipend — essentially paying them simply for being alive — could reduce the city's poverty and inequality. Virginia will get $500 a month through July.
She said the payments were easing her stress about buying everyday necessities.
"I'm not saying, 'Oh, it's just free money — I'm just going to go blow it,'" she said. "I've helped pay off a debt, a small one. This has helped me be able to buy food and medicine that I know I would have to use my regular income for."
Virginia's experience aligns with the initial results of the trial, which showed that, on average, participants had so far spent about 40% of their stipends on food and another 24% on sales and merchandise — like trips to Walmart or dollar stores. Another 11% went to paying for their utilities, and about 9% went to buying gas and repairing their cars.
"It's a landmark study in the history of basic income," Michael Stynes, the CEO of the nonprofit Jain Family Institute, told Business Insider.