Andrew Yang Talks Universal Basic Income During The Coronavirus Crisis Universal basic income has been getting more attention during the pandemic. NPR's Michel Martin talks with former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who popularized the idea on the campaign trail.

Andrew Yang Talks Universal Basic Income During The Coronavirus Crisis

Andrew Yang Talks Universal Basic Income During The Coronavirus Crisis

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Universal basic income has been getting more attention during the pandemic. NPR's Michel Martin talks with former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who popularized the idea on the campaign trail.


Meanwhile, here in Washington, D.C., Democrats and Republicans in Congress are still trying to pull together a massive stimulus package to help Americans weather the crisis as businesses across the country shut down. A key part of the package would be aid for businesses and families affected by the crisis, including a plan to send many Americans a check for $1,200.

Sound familiar? It does if you followed Andrew Yang's campaign for president. The former entrepreneur ran for the Democratic nomination with a core proposal for something known as universal basic income.

His plan, which he called a freedom dividend, would pay each American adult a thousand dollars per month. Mr. Yang argued that the payments would address the widespread unemployment that he said would follow the growing automation of the U.S. economy. And Andrew Yang is with us now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for talking to us.

ANDREW YANG: It's great to be here. I wish it were under better circumstances.

MARTIN: Like...

YANG: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Well, likewise. So how close does this stimulus package come - specifically, individual cash provisions for individuals and families - to the vision that you set forth in the campaign?

YANG: Well, the fundamentals are identical in terms of cash transfers directly to individuals and households. They're talking about $1,200 per adult, which is very close to the level I'd recommended.

The big difference is that I suggested we should implement this in perpetuity because I believe that it should be a basic right of citizenship to have a certain level of resources to be able to meet your basic needs. And the stimulus package that is being discussed is meant to last hopefully for several months, which would be better than a one-time payment.

So there are some differences, but the fundamentals are identical in terms of putting cash directly into our citizens' hands so that we can solve our own problems, stay healthier and, in this case, feed our families.

MARTIN: So are you learning anything from seeing this play out in real time? I mean, you recall that when you first raised this, you know, a lot of people scoffed at this as sort of pie in the sky. And now that it's actually being debated in real time by people who are really going to have to vote on it - we think - are you noticing anything about the debate that strikes you?

YANG: Well, the interesting thing is how it has completely muddled and transcended party lines, where Republicans have enthusiastically come out for cash directly to Americans, which is the obvious and, frankly, only move that we can make that could keep our economy from collapsing into a new Great Depression.

And the Democrats have been open to it. But in some ways, they've actually been more stringent on things like means testing than some of what the Republicans have recommended. So it's been interesting seeing that this has completely transcended traditional party boundaries in terms of the enthusiasm for it.

MARTIN: One of the criticisms of your proposal when it was - during the campaign is that the argument was that the political tradeoff required to pass it would mean that certain safety net programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, for - would likely be eliminated as a consequence of what would be needed to sort of pass this politically. Do you think that that's true?

YANG: I don't. It wasn't true in my proposal, and it's not true now, where clearly, with this coronavirus crisis, Congress is just looking to put more money into our hands and not less in any form. And it's not just for individuals and families. To me, one of the great challenges is that millions of Americans work for small businesses, bars, restaurants, marketing firms, nail salons that have all seen their prospects collapse. And most of these businesses generally are breaking even even in normal times.

So the question is, how do you help these businesses stay afloat and then potentially reopen when the time comes? Because it's not tenable for that business to essentially - oh, let's call it two or three months' worth of expenses - and then try and reopen. That's the kind of debt that can break the back of most small businesses.

MARTIN: And one of the other criticisms is - have also said that, you know, work is so central to American identity, that - and also that people always create this - they have this argument around the moral hazard, right, of, you know, giving people money without demanding something in return.

After this crisis is over, the hope is that America will get back to work, and people will get back to - the economy will rebuild itself. Do you have any thought that possibly, if this does continue, that it would slow the pace of rebuilding? Do you think that might be possible?

YANG: Well, of course not. I mean, this money in our hands is necessary for us to stay alive during this time. And I always thought the entire, like, money versus work construction ignored the sort of work that happens every day that's not getting recognized or compensated anyway - the kind of work that my wife does as the parent of our two small boys, one of whom is autistic. So the market economy was missing the reality in many, many cases anyway.

And the fact is, money in our hands does nothing to mitigate our work ethic. In many cases, it would actually give Americans more reason to work because you would actually be able to get ahead and have a foundation as opposed to in some cases now, it feels like you can run and run and never get ahead.

So the fact that we're now going to have this widespread experience with cash in our hands, I think it will completely debunk the notion that money does anything but make us stronger, healthier, mentally healthier, more productive and more trusting of our fellow citizens and our government. Again, I would never have wished for basic income to be catalyzed by this kind of crisis. But here we are.

MARTIN: That's Andrew Yang, former Democratic presidential candidate and the creator of the Humanity Forward political nonprofit.

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