May 15, 2021

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Why Andrew Yang’s push for a universal basic income is making a comeback

Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang speaks to media outside the Knight Concert Hall of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County June 26, 2019 in Miami, Florida.

Joe Raedle | Getty Images

For months, lawmakers have been paying attention to and pushing for some form of a universal basic income as the coronavirus pandemic roiled the economy and forced millions of Americans out of a job. 

It’s the main pillar that former presidential candidate Andrew Yang took up in his campaign, centered around the premise that a UBI could alleviate or resolve many American issues. 

The gravity with which a UBI is now regarded is a complete reversal of the reaction Yang first got when unveiling his platform. Pundits and Democratic strategists didn’t take his campaign seriously, but suddenly the push for a UBI does not seem so far-fetched. 

Just as the pandemic was taking full shape in the United States, progressives who’ve long criticized Yang’s UBI stance urged in March for direct payments to workers around the country. Among them was Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who in August of last year found fault with instituting a UBI

Shortly after Sanders and other lawmakers spoke up, President Donald Trump signed into law a coronavirus stimulus package that offered a $1,200 payment to struggling Americans to offset any economic damage brought on by the virus. And now Congress is in discussions about the next round of stimulus relief, with the potential for another $1,200 direct payment

As the conversation around UBI continues, CNBC spoke with Yang on the U.S. response to the pandemic, engaging the White House and how Americans can make a difference in the coming months. 

The UBI push

For many Americans, the $1,200 payment is not enough to cover all their expenses. Still, a whopping 74% of respondents in a CNBC/Change Research poll from May said they supported federal relief payments to help Americans cope with the economic disaster brought on by the pandemic.

“If you think about it in 2020, 74% might as well be 98%,” Yang said in an interview Tuesday with CNBC ahead of a Verizon event centered around achieving social change. “It’s virtually unanimous.”

Since ending his presidential bid, Yang launched Humanity Forward, a nonprofit that bolsters UBI, offering endorsements to candidates in support of it up and down the ballot.

UBI is especially critical in these next coming months, Yang said, as health officials warn that the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus is growing throughout the country.

“We believe that people need economic relief right now. So we were proud to have distributed $7 million in direct economic aid to folks who are struggling in increments of between $250 and $1,000,” Yang told CNBC. 

“That $7 million is unfortunately just a sliver of the need,” he said. “We have a waiting list of over 100,000 people who have requested additional aid, but we’re certainly proud to take what we have and put it into people’s hands.”

Humanity Forward urges people to donate to its Covid-19 relief fund online, 100% of which goes to low-income people who are struggling to support themselves, according to the site. 

The coronavirus response 

But instituting a UBI at this point would not negate the damage already wreaked by the coronavirus.

Over a period of weeks in March, the coronavirus spread rapidly from state to state in the country, forcing businesses to shutter and plunging people into joblessness. The effects have continued for months, and dozens of states are experiencing spikes in the number of confirmed cases after apparently reopening their businesses prematurely.

Nearly 33 million people said they were collecting unemployment benefits as of June 20, according to statistics from the Labor Department.  

As the coronavirus gained steam, the Trump administration downplayed it, in a move that ran counter to the message from health officials. Earlier this month, the White House also made an effort to block funding for testing in the upcoming stimulus relief bill. Trump previously suggested at a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that testing would be slowed down. Later, the White House said he was joking. 

Yang did not mince words when he addressed the U.S. response to the pandemic: “It’s been tragic and heartbreaking to see us fail our people on so many levels. And even if you just fast forward to today, like we’re not even doing the things that we should be doing in terms of helping families manage this time and this crisis. We’ve been failing on multiple levels.”

The Trump administration has received blowback for its handling of the pandemic, with the president receiving the most dismal marks from voters.

A Quinnipiac University poll from earlier this month showed that only 35% of voters approved of his response, compared with 62% who indicated disapproval. This rating is the lowest he’s received since March, according to a press release from Quinnipiac University.

“Thirty percent or more of Americans couldn’t afford housing costs last month, and that’s with extended unemployment benefits and other measures,” Yang said, referring to a figure from online rental platform Apartment List. “So we need to think much bigger about how we can make this economy work for so many Americans. And to me, that starts with putting economic relief directly into their hands.”

2020 politics

Yang is adamant that Humanity Forward lend a hand wherever possible to make economic relief a reality for Americans. 

So far, that looks like supporting candidates who believe in and advance the vision of UBI. 

But that support may extend to the White House if former Vice President Joe Biden wins in November, Yang said. 

“The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the rate of change in our economy where we’ve seen 10 years worth of change in 10 weeks. And so if I have an opportunity to help address some of these problems in a new administration, I would strongly consider it,” Yang said. 

Yang endorsed Biden for president in March, and since then he’s stumped for the 2020 presumptive Democratic nominee and has functioned as one of his surrogates on the campaign trail.

“I continue to make it clear that I think four more years of a Trump presidency would be an utter disaster and that Joe needs to win and become our next president,” Yang told CNBC.

But should the Trump administration approach Yang about providing input on how the U.S. should be addressing the crisis, “I’d be happy to advise,” he said, while adding that he believes “this administration only has another few months in office.”

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment from CNBC asking whether that would be welcome or has ever been under consideration.

Yang did not answer whether he is weighing a bid for New York mayor, as many outlets have been reporting.

He also declined to say whether he’s thought about a presidential bid for 2024, saying instead that he’s focused on helping Biden succeed this year and putting his effort into alleviating the tensions brought on by the virus. 

Moving forward

Perhaps those most suited to make a difference right now are businesses and corporations, Yang told CNBC, speaking ahead of his keynote address at an event called Citizen Verizon Assembly for advancing social change.

Large corporations especially have the resources right now to strengthen communities in need of assistance, he said. Many businesses have begun investing in organizations that are pushing for social change or investing in their own initiatives. 

Yang encouraged companies to understand the difference between just “adopting messaging around social change versus when they make real commitments and investments.” Financial investment into employees and communities ultimately “helps move us in a better direction,” he said. 

At the same, it’s understandably tough for businesses to make these investments as they navigate the effects of the pandemic, Yang added.

“We’ve put many businesses in an impossible situation where we want them to do the right thing by their workers, but they’re subject to economic pressures and reporting deadlines where if they show a downturn in revenue and profitability, then their stock is going to get punished if they’re a public company,” he said.

These investments would be part of a larger effort to change the way the economy works for Americans. The backbone of the U.S. economy hasn’t evolved to meet the needs of Americans, Yang said. “We’ve been pretending that our economy is still like it was in the 1970s or ’80s, where you had one job and you stayed at that job for decades,” he said. That job came with health insurance and benefits, things that are not as guaranteed today. Most jobs created today, he said, are gig, temp and contract jobs that don’t have security or benefits to them. 

In this way, he said, businesses can offer solutions to help and change the scope of the American workforce. 

And consumers will respond to their willingness to advance social change. “If a company were just to say, ‘Hey, I’m not in the business of doing good. I just want to operate my business just as if nothing has changed,’ I think that many consumers will probably be less excited about spending their dollars with those companies,” Yang said. 

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