Andrew Yang May Be Out, but His Basic Income Idea Is Getting a Second Look

Andrew Yang May Be Out, but His Basic Income Idea Is Getting a Second Look

For more than two years, Andrew Yang traveled the country as a presidential candidate trying to convince voters that a crisis was coming. The economy was going to evolve, he warned, jobs would be automated away in droves and many Americans were going to find themselves at home without a paycheck.

“And now,” Mr. Yang observed from inside his family’s weekend home in upstate New York, “we’ve all been sent home at once.”

To be sure, fear of an impending global pandemic resulting from a novel coronavirus was not the reason Mr. Yang spent months insisting the federal government provide American adults with a universal basic income of $1,000 per month. But a global pandemic has arrived. And the fallout from the outbreak has plunged the country into a grim and uncertain reality.

So only now — with millions of Americans facing the prospect of no work and wondering how they will pay the bills — have proposals similar to Mr. Yang’s signature policy prescription gained wide, bipartisan approval. In the sort of political turnabout that may only be possible when society faces dire need, giving free money to Americans suddenly appears not only rational but critically necessary to many Democrats and key Republicans.

In a telephone interview Tuesday night, Mr. Yang expressed confidence that legislation would soon put some form of basic income or stimulus checks into Americans’ bank accounts. “This thing is going to pass,” he said. “And it’s going to pass for a very obvious reason: Money in our hands is vital to prevent our economy from collapsing.”

Over the past week, proposals to dole out direct payments to workers and their families while schools and businesses shut down have come from progressives like Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, moderate Democrats like Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado and Republicans like Senator Mitt Romney of Utah.

Those calls for relief were bolstered by the White House, which got behind the idea of rapidly sending money to Americans. An outline of a Treasury Department proposal obtained Wednesday by The New York Times called for sending two rounds of checks directly to taxpayers on April 6 and May 18. Payments would be fixed and their sizes dependent on income and family size, according to the outline, which put the cost of each payment at $250 billion, part of a $1 trillion economic stabilization package.

Speaking to reporters at a White House briefing on Wednesday, President Trump said the exact amount of the checks was still “to be determined,” while lauding the talks surrounding the payments as “very bipartisan.”

Mr. Yang said he would recommend payments of $1,000 per adult and $500 per child in the near term with the hope that they could continue in perpetuity.

“My big concern is that we should make it consistent, and once a month so that if this crisis continues, people don’t see their savings evaporate,” he said. “If you were to have a lump sum in March, that money’s not going to last until May or June.”

“I hope this does become fixed policy,” he added. “But we’re in a crisis right now and the important thing is to just get money into Americans’ hands.”

Mr. Yang said he had harbored doubts about whether the federal government would consider giving money directly to citizens. But he repeatedly expressed “thrill” that ideas similar to his own were being discussed at the highest level of government.

“No one would wish this as a circumstance we’d ever face as a country,” he said. “But I do feel some degree of pride in that I believe that my campaign — with the help of hundreds of thousands of supporters around the country — helped advance a set of solutions that it turns out the country needed in a time of crisis.”

Throughout his presidential campaign, Mr. Yang called for a monthly basic income that would be provided to American adults from the time they turned 18 until their death. Though several lawmakers have suggested somewhat similar measures to address the coronavirus crisis, many of the plans call for sending a limited number of checks or providing other mechanisms for relief, some of which have been deployed during past downturns.

In other words, one person’s temporary universal basic income is another person’s stimulus check or tax rebate.

Mr. Romney, for instance, has suggested a one-time $1,000 check — not universal basic income — as a starting point; Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii has proposed $1,000 payments until the emergency has ended; and Representatives Tim Ryan of Ohio and Ro Khanna of California have proposed an emergency earned-income tax credit that they said would provide a check to Americans who earned less than $65,000 last year.

Mr. Sanders on Tuesday came out in favor of “$2,000 cash payments to every person in America every month for the duration of the crisis.” And a group of Democratic senators — led by Mr. Bennet, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Sherrod Brown of Ohio — proposed sending as much as $4,500 to nearly every adult and child in installments this year.

In an interview, Mr. Khanna, a co-chair of Mr. Sanders’s presidential campaign, said he would be willing to work with those who wanted to send checks quickly, but was concerned that under some plans, financial help would not be targeted to those who need it most.

“This can’t just be a one-time thing,” he said. “It’s got to be more sustained, and when you’re sustaining it, it would become far better to give more dramatic relief to the working families and those who are unemployed.”

Indeed, the economic ripple effect of the virus is already being felt most acutely by service workers and hourly workers whose jobs have evaporated as Americans have been urged to practice “social distancing.” With so many Americans forced to stay home, some experts said that sending them money was the best way to stimulate the economy.

“We’re in a situation now where we’re almost surely going to have a recession. And unlike most recessions, we don’t want people going to work — we want a lot of people to stay at home and not be interacting socially,” said N. Gregory Mankiw, a professor of economics at Harvard and a former adviser to President George W. Bush. Direct payments, he said, would allow people to avoid putting their health at risk for a paycheck.

But Jason Furman, a Harvard economics professor who advised President Barack Obama, noted that while universal basic income had “a lot of attractive features,” it would be expensive to administer in the long run.

“Cash is very flexible and lets people make the choices that are best for them,” Professor Furman said. “But as a large-scale permanent program it would be very difficult to finance.”

Though Mr. Yang favors making payments permanent, he stressed the need to “take care of our people and then figure out what we’re going to do” after the crisis recedes.

“I’m thrilled that common sense is prevailing,” he said, before acknowledging that his idea may have been slightly ahead of its time.

He suspended his campaign in February, he noted, “and then we adopt universal basic income in March.”

Reporting was contributed by Emily Cochrane, Nicholas Fandos, Alan Rappeport and Jim Tankersley.

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