It’s been one year since Congress first sent checks to almost everybody in America.
Washington had never sent such large payments to so many people, and it may have changed American politics forever. Congress has since sent two more rounds of COVID-19 relief payments, and the Biden administration is about to send recurring periodic checks to almost everyone with kids.
A lot of factors contributed to the sudden bonanza of direct cash assistance: the pandemic, right-wing populism, and years of advocacy by Democrats such as Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.).
But only one person staked an entire political candidacy on the idea of giving people money: Andrew Yang, the former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination and current candidate for New York City mayor. What about him?
“I think our campaign contributed mightily towards the mainstreaming of cash relief,” Yang told HuffPost. “I believe this to be true in part because of the resistance I received.”
Yang ran for president during the 2020 cycle on the idea of transforming the federal government’s various income support programs into a single $1,000 monthly check, which he called the “Freedom Dividend.” He stood out among candidates for his focus on this one policy above anything else, eagerly describing it as free money for everybody.
Yang won no delegates, despite enthusiastic support online. The strongest resistance he faced may have been simple inertia. Debate moderators didn’t ask Yang a lot of questions, and other candidates just sort of shrugged at the Freedom Dividend. He was an idiosyncratic candidate, and he was losing.
“The other presidential candidates did not really want to contest this with me,” Yang said. “I think part of that was frankly that I was generally trailing them in the polls, and they were advised not to joust with a candidate that wasn’t a threat to them politically.”
The federal government has sent regular checks to limited numbers of people since the Civil War. And monthly Social Security retirement payments are one of the most beneficial and popular things the government does. But the idea of just cutting checks to everybody has long been off-limits, thanks to decades of Republicans raging against poor people getting money for nothing. When Congress sent out stimulus checks in 2008, for instance, people with low incomes were excluded.
The politics of checks changed at the outset of the pandemic in 2020, when Congress was working on a big relief bill and even Republicans, trying to hold both the Senate and the White House in the upcoming election, said poor people deserved the same benefits as everyone else. The virus, after all, was ruining life for everybody.
“What Congress did was, in a moment of great crisis, looked for an idea that was commensurate with the problem,” said Natalie Foster, co-founder of the Economic Security Project, which has lobbied for years in favor of unconditional cash relief. “There was a lot of work done already… They picked up the idea and went with it.”
The concept has been proven several times, Foster said, pointing to various demonstration projects. In Stockton, California, for instance, parents who received $500 a month for two years, no strings attached, were better able to meet their expenses and were more likely to work, contrary to the Washington “conventional wisdom” that materially helping people is bad for them because it promotes laziness.
Foster and Yang both cited Martin Luther King Jr. as an early proponent of universal basic income, but in fact the idea goes back much further. In her research for the book ”Give People Money,” journalist Annie Lowrey traced the concept to the Roman Empire, Tudor England and the writings of Thomas Paine, calling it “a curious piece of intellectual flotsam that has washed ashore again and again over the last half millennium, often coming in with the tides of economic revolution.”
Taking the long view, Yang may be less a visionary than a guy who picked a good moment to seize on a bright idea. In the first chapter of Lowrey’s book, published in 2018, a source muses that someone would run for president with UBI as part of their platform.
“I give him a lot of credit for popularizing the idea, but it’s so old,” Lowrey, a staff writer at The Atlantic, said of Yang in an interview. “Nobody except for him really is talking about UBI, but it’s giving people a new language to discuss what would have been called welfare.”
Many other Democrats have promoted the idea of unconditional cash in recent years. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) introduced legislation in 2019 that would have paid lower- and middle-income Americans $250 per month.
By contrast, the $1,200 checks authorized as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act last year are not a universal basic income, nor are the $1,400 checks from the American Rescue Plan. But the latter bill might get us there, as it contains the beginnings of a near-universal child allowance. Democrats boosted the maximum child tax credit from $2,000 to $3,600 per child and told the IRS to send the money in advance starting this summer.
Sometime after July, the vast majority of parents in the U.S. will receive several hundred dollars per month, per child. The policy expires at the end of the year, but Democrats have vowed to make it permanent.
A key difference between Yang’s 2020 campaign proposal and what Democrats are doing is that he called for replacing some current programs with cash relief, while Democrats are layering a child allowance on top of the existing safety net. Consolidating and replacing welfare programs with a single cash benefit appeals more to Republicans; earlier this year Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) proposed a child allowance similar to the one in the Rescue Plan, which would be paid for in part by eliminating the clunky Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
During the campaign, Yang defended monthly checks as a response to the threat of automation, i.e., robots taking people’s jobs. But he also spoke movingly about the inhumanity of the labor market, particularly toward people like his son, who has special needs.
“We go to employers and say, ‘Hey, this special needs person can be a contributor in your workplace,’ which may be correct, but that’s not the point,” Yang said at a debate in 2019. “We have to stop confusing economic value and human value. We have to be able to say to our kids… that you have intrinsic value because you are an American and you are a human being.”
Democrats have focused more on the fact that the expanded child tax credit could cut poverty in half, citing much research. Their big plan to make the credit permanent is essentially to dare Republicans to double child poverty by letting it expire.
Yang, for his part, has made cash relief part of his New York mayoral campaign, pledging to launch the largest basic income program in the country if he prevails. The race has barely started, but so far, he’s winning.
“I believe cash relief is only going to grow more popular as we see how transformative its effects are on millions of families,” Yang said.
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