Yang Is Gone But We Should Still Talk About Giving People Free Money

The departing presidential candidate's universal basic income is a flawed version of a good idea.
Andrew Yang
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Andrew Yang ended his long-shot yet surprisingly robust campaign on Tuesday night after winning exactly zero delegates in Iowa, and looking down a similar fate in New Hampshire. As he dropped out, he emphasized that Universal Basic Income, his signature proposal of giving every American $1,000 per month, was his campaign’s biggest takeaway.

“That will be the most important legacy,” Yang said in an interview with BuzzFeed. “If we accelerate the end of poverty in this country—which I believe we already have, because I don’t think this idea is going to go away.”


It’s true that Yang brought the idea of UBI onto the main stage. But the idea of giving straight cash to people as government policy has long been beloved for many across the political spectrum—supported by progressives, libertarians, and Silicon Valley technocrats alike. Yang’s specific version of UBI was rightfully critiqued by many on the left, who saw it as tackling the back-end issues of poverty without actually pushing to dismantle the root capitalistic powers that are fucking people over in the first place.

As Jeff Spross wrote at The Week, “rather than stacking atop the existing welfare state, Yang's Freedom Dividend would replace portions of it depending on recipients' voluntary decisions.” Many criticized the fact that Yang wanted to fund his UBI with a regressive Value Added Tax, which would place a burden on people who need extra money the most.

And earlier this week, Lisa Miller at The Cut pointed out that the way Yang talks about UBI affirms the stratification between women as caregivers and men as “workers.” While Yang argued that an extra $12,000 would help caregivers stay home with their children, as Miller writes, Yang’s UBI plan “doesn’t recognize that looking after the health, education, safety, and success of all the nation’s children should be everyone’s problem, including the government’s, and not just shouldered by the caregiver at home.”

UBI is a policy in search of an ideology, and Yang’s ideology lacks the right kind of structural critique. He focuses on the threat of robots automating people out of their jobs as the reason why UBI is the right fix, rather than something much simpler: No one deserves to live in poverty. It’s not the mathematical solution, but the moral one.


But the biggest mistake would be for progressives to allow UBI’s legacy to lie with Yang. Cash is a necessary benefit that would effectively cut poverty in this country. But the perceived benefits of such a thing have been eroded since the 1990s, when Bill Clinton’s era of welfare reform cast giving cash as a way to subsidize the “lazy” and “undeserving” poor. It was a racist trope that primarily punished single Black mothers. Welfare reform also underwrote anti-poverty policy for decades, with Democrats and Republicans both pushing for technocratic things like the earned income tax credit that deliberately exclude the country’s poorest residents.

Over the 2020 primary, Democrats have come around to anti-poverty cash policies in a way they haven't for years, but the party still hasn't fully grappled with its complicity in creating moral myths around the deserving and undeserving poor that make such policies difficult to pass in the first place.

Yang’s UBI is not the way forward, but his ideas are more palatable in a post-welfare-reform world. What we need is a politician making the case for a UBI that’s part and parcel of an anti-welfare-reform, anti-racist, and feminist platform. This is starting to happen already, as is the case with a bill put forward by Rep. Rashida Tlaib that is UBI-esque in nature.

But until Democrats fully face their party’s history of giving into the conservative perspective on cash welfare, UBI will remain in the realm of the nerds, rather than as part of a robust social democratic welfare state where it belongs.

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