For the entirety of Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign, I did not take him or his ideas seriously.
And, odds are, neither did you. Yang’s campaign ran on the flagship policy of a Universal Basic Income, also known as UBI. This decision alienated him; his small community of avid supporters, affectionately referred to as the “Yang Gang,” seemed to be largely populated by meme-making Redditors, Joe Rogan superfans and the occasional tech mogul (looking at you, Elon). Everyone else — his competitors, mainstream media channels and the general populace — largely dismissed Yang’s campaign as a gimmick, not to be taken seriously. In the summer of 2019, both MSNBC and CNN left Yang out of graphics displaying the Democratic presidential candidates, and MSNBC infamously referred to him as “John Yang” during one of their broadcasts. In response to instances like this, Twitter was flooded with hashtags such as #LetYangSpeak and #YangMediaBlackout, hashtags that I bemusedly scrolled through for a couple of minutes before migrating to some other part of Twitter that I found more entertaining. What did UBI possibly have to offer that our current welfare programs did not already? And in what world was UBI even feasible?
These questions were quickly answered when the COVID-19 pandemic hit America in late February; ravaging small businesses, upending the lives of millions of Americans and convincing me that a UBI is not only an effective way to prop up our economy in times of crisis, but an absolute necessity for America’s future.
If the pandemic has proven anything, it’s that slathering on more and more layers of bureaucracy cannot veil the brokenness of our country’s institutions. This has been made evident by America’s failure to effectively issue accessible testing for the virus. The detrimental COVID-19 testing bottlenecks, which resulted from an ironic combination of extensive, time consuming government regulations placed on private laboratories and the C.D.C’s failure to create effective tests themselves, proved to be yet another hurdle that only the rich and connected could overcome. While hospitals in Manhattan and elite colleges like our own were able to afford protective gear and rapid-response tests, poorer communities struggled. Disabled individuals were given less priority for healthcare resources in states like Alabama and striking racial disparities in COVID-19 related deaths emphasized the systemic discrimination that many ignored.
This is what makes the laissez-faire nature of UBI so attractive. When you put money directly into the hands of the people, you invest in individuals rather than institutions that prove, time and time again, that they do not take care of people equally. American welfare programs are fundamentally exclusive. People with debilitating mental conditions are often unable to qualify for state Medicaid programs because they cannot get doctors to certify them as “disabled.” Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits are only available if one is able to complete a certain amount of work and/or volunteer hours every month, which prevents people who are unable to acquire transportation or have previously been incarcerated from reaping such benefits. Food stamp programs are based solely on monthly income and fail to take extenuating circumstances into account.
President Bill Clinton’s welfare plan, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, added even more work requirements for benefits. A study conducted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that these added requirements “fueled a rise in deep poverty,” and grossly underserved African American and Latin American families. Even though Black and Latinx communities experience higher levels of poverty, Black and Latinx children are more likely than white children to live in states with the weakest TANF programs. Many of these states have a history of barring Black families from benefits in order to make it easier for employers to take advantage of them. The nature of UBI doesn’t allow for such exclusions to occur.
The pandemic has also revealed to us how incredibly fragile our current economy is. Because of COVID-19, over thirty million people lost their jobs, almost three thousand small businesses have shut down in New York City alone, and small business revenue has gone down by 10 percent. The only thing that prevented a disastrous increase in poverty due to the pandemic was the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which included a $1,200 stimulus check issued to almost every American adult making a yearly income of under $99,000, and heightened unemployment benefits.The CARES Act was not without its flaws — it suffered from several strange restrictions and exceptions — but it did help prove that simply putting cash in people’s hands is an effective way to fend off economic crises.
Increasing job automation will soon result in a huge transformation for the U.S, and its potential for economic destruction is much more serious than COVID-19’s. McKinsey estimates that, by 2030, between 15 and 30 percent of jobs will be displaced due to automation; that figure rises to over 38 percent in the United States. Should we enter this era with the same economic foundation as we did going into the pandemic, the resulting disaster will hardly be mitigated by a one-time stimulus check and a temporary increase in unemployment benefits.We need to establish a consistent, streamlined and reliable baseline in quality of living for the American people before it’s too late. Instituting a universal basic income is the simplest way to do that.
In theory, this all sounds great, but how would we pay for it? In my version of UBI, I would increase certain taxes, such as the inheritance and estate taxes, as well as implement new ones, such as a carbon tax and a value-added tax. There is a lot of money out there that is not being taxed; in relation to other countries, the United States currently taxes a very low percent of its GDP. We should take advantage of this, and redistribute wealth in a manner that makes the people and corporations that benefit the most from job automation give a slice of their cashout back to the American people. Additionally, a UBI plan would pay for itself through a variety of avenues. When you give people more financial support, you help people avoid our institutions. Less crimes would be committed, which would lead to lower incarceration rates. There would be less homeless people, which would put less of a burden on homelessness shelters. After the implementation of a UBI, we would be saving tens of billions of dollars on running these institutions and services simply due to less traffic.
I don’t think Andrew Yang’s UBI plan is perfect. In fact, I think that it has some serious oversights that could end up exacerbating the problems that he is trying to mitigate. For example, he claims that while most citizens would choose between their UBI check and their welfare benefits, disabled individuals and veterans will be able to “stack” those two things. However, it is unclear how he will decide who qualifies as disabled while still avoiding the bureaucratic and exclusive certification process that UBI is meant to. That being said, I think UBI is a necessary tool we must use in order to progress toward a society that serves the needs of all American citizens equitably. UBI is not an end goal, but it is the only step we can take if we want to address the extreme inequalities in our welfare system and support our economy as jobs increasingly become automated. I don’t endorse Andrew Yang, but I do deeply appreciate him for using his platform to bring the concept of UBI to the table.
It is only with the turbulence of a national health crisis that I have realized how uneven of a foundation America’s institutions are built upon. Not only do they consistently fail certain demographics, but they are also exceptionally susceptible to collapse as we enter the next technological era. When seeking ways to successfully address these fundamental flaws, the implementation of a universal basic income will be instrumental.
During the Congress elections this year, I urge you to take into account candidates’ attitude toward UBI. It can say a lot about their ability and willingness to address deeply established issues in America from the ground up and fully acknowledge the economic challenges that America will soon be facing.