When entrepreneur Andrew Yang announced he was running for President, many considered him to be an unorthodox candidate. As a successful entrepreneur who attended an Ivy League law school and founded Venture for America, a national fellowship program for aspiring business owners, he shared similar credentials to presidential candidates before him. But he was facing off against more than a dozen members of Congress and Obama-administration alumni as someone who had never been elected to public office himself.
And a key component of his platform was considered to be a particularly fringe idea: Universal Basic Income (UBI). The premise of his proposal, which he dubbed the Freedom Dividend, would have put $1,000 in the pockets of all United States citizens over the age of 18 every single month.
Though Yang dropped out of the 2020 race in mid-February, he outlasted Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Sen. Kamala Harris, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and several others. And like the surprising strength of his long-shot campaign, Yang’s aggressive calls for a national UBI program seem to have some staying power. Now, as Congress works with the Trump Administration to implement economic relief for the Americans impacted by Coronavirus, proposals tangentially related to the Yang’s Freedom Dividend are under serious discussion.
On Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the cash infusions could happen swiftly. “We are looking at sending checks to Americans immediately,” he told reporters. “Americans need cash now and the President wants to get cash now. And I mean now, in the next two weeks.”
“I’m incredibly excited by the fact that our government seems like they’re on the cusp of doing the common sense thing to help people get through this coronavirus crisis by putting cash straight into a family’s hands,” Yang tells TIME of the UBI-adjacent solutions that have been posed.
Republican Senator Mitt Romney proposed on Monday sending all adults a one-time check for $1,000 to help their families meet financial obligations during the crisis, part of a call for “urgent action on additional coronavirus response measures aimed at providing economic relief for working Americans and families.”
“While expansions of paid leave, unemployment insurance, and SNAP benefits are crucial, the check will help fill the gaps for Americans that may not quickly navigate different government options,” Romney’s announcement said.
Democrats have introduced cash infusions to combat the effects of an economic downturn in recent weeks. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s COVID-19 economic solution most resembles Yang’s. On March 12, the Hawaii Democrat and 2020 candidate introduced legislation that would provide a “direct emergency economic stimulus for individual Americans.” It calls on the federal government to provide non-taxable payments of $1,000 a month to all adult Americans until the current public health emergency subsides.
Additionally, Congressmen Tim Ryan and Ro Khanna proposed legislation that would give Americans cash with no-strings-attached amid coronavirus-related fallout. On March 13, they suggested establishing an emergency Earned Income Tax Credit that would give Americans who earned less than $65,000 in 2019 a check between $1,000 and $6,000. The Democratic duo estimates more than three-quarters of American workers would qualify for this tax relief.
The fact that a Republican is calling for a direct cash infusion to adults in 2020 signifies that UBI is gaining traction, says Matt Zwolinski, director of the University of San Diego’s Center for Ethics, Economics and Public Policy. “It is significant to see an actual politician on the right supporting something like this,” he says. “That might help to legitimate it among certain circles who would have otherwise viewed it as a kind of socialism.”
Zwolinski contends that by offering people a basic income, people can use the money on whatever they need, making it particularly effective in an unpredictable crisis like this one. “It’s really hard to know from a governmental perspective what exactly people need,” he says. “You know people are facing some sort of crisis, but you don’t know if what they need is food or help paying their rent, or just cash to get by on a daily basis.”
He agrees Ryan and Khanna’s plan to have an income cutoff for recipients is sensible. “It’s pretty clear that the way this crisis is affecting people varies quite a bit depending on what kind of socioeconomic conditions people are living in,” he says. “If you’re going to implement something like a basic income guarantee on a longer term basis, you’ve simply got to make distinctions between groups based on their income levels, because otherwise the proposal becomes incredibly expensive, and I think politically infeasible.”
The premise of UBI still has plenty of critics, who worry it will be exorbitantly expensive as a long-term plan. “I think in the short term, we don’t need to worry about how to pay for it, we need to be spending money as fast as we can offset the hole in the economy,” says Jesse Rothstein, director of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at University of California Berkeley. “But in the long term, we can’t do that forever.”
Aid programs that target relief money to the people who are being directly impacted by COVID-19—like guaranteed paid sick leave—as opposed to a universal benefit could be a better use of the government’s funds, says Rothstein. “The problem with a UBI is that they would write a check to people like me. I’m still getting paid and I can still do my work,” he says. “There are better ways to target the money to the people who are really in need.”
For his part, Yang argues other economic solutions like paid sick and family leave, are smart but would take too long to implement. “We don’t have time right now,” he says. “This is something we actually can implement immediately, in a powerful way, that will improve millions of Americans’ lives and make us stronger and healthier from day one.”
Zwolinski doesn’t think coronavirus is likely to lead to an immediate, permanent UBI, but he does think the pandemic’s grip on the country could move the needle towards broader discussions about it in the future. “I don’t think that politicians or the public would be comfortable with implementing something on a permanent scale based on a crisis,” he says. “But I think you might get temporary cash infusions into the economy, which will go a long way to making people more comfortable with the idea of giving people cash on a perhaps longer-term basis.”
Yang isn’t eager to take too much credit for advancing the idea beyond the fringes. But he is excited that conversations about UBI are taking place. “My goal has always been to eradicate and alleviate all of the unnecessary poverty and deprivation in this country,” Yang said via phone Monday night. “If I can play a part in that happening, oh, I’ll be a very happy man.”
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