O4W task force enlists Yang in conversation on guaranteed basic incomeAndrew Yang(l) and Amir Farokhi in conversation at Dancing Goats Coffee Bar on Dec. 16, 2020. (Credit: Tony Lucadamo)
By Maggie Lee
On a chilly afternoon this week, entrepreneur and former presidential candidate Andrew Yang sat on the porch of Dancing Goats Coffee Bar with area Atlanta City Councilman Amir Farokhi, talking about a policy both men back: a no-strings attached guaranteed income.
“It’s certainly not my idea,” said Yang, speaking to a small in-person audience and more folks on a livestream.
Yang and his wife Evelyn had spent the morning touring the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park. And Yang brought up a point he frequently brings up in forums and interviews: that King himself wrote in a 1967 book that a “guaranteed income” would be the most effective solution to abolish poverty.
“I think since Dr. King’s passing to now, we’ve gotten collectively brainwashed into a certain version of capitalism and market-based thinking and we see ourselves as inputs into this system,” Yang said.
“Even I’m guilty of it, when you talk about ’embracing the grind’ or ‘the brand of you’ or whatever … It’s like we kind of see ourselves as economic actors all of the time and so the wisdom of Dr. King just needed to be awakened or rekindled.”
Yang built his 2020 Democratic presidential campaign around the idea of “universal basic income:” a regular check for every American. It’s in part because he foresees a lot of jobs disappearing due to automation. But also, he argues, it’s a simple way to improve peoples’ lives and increase entrepreneurship.
Farokhi, who represents Old Fourth Ward and surrounding areas on City Council, co-chairs the Old Fourth Ward Economic Security Task Force, which is working on ways to establish a guaranteed income and an earned income tax credit.
The Old Fourth Ward’s long mixed history includes havens of working- and middle-class Black prosperity in a segregated city; and of white prosperity too. But it also includes places like Buttermilk Bottom, where Black people lived in some of the worst housing in the city until it was cleared away for projects like the Civic Center. Younger folks only know O4W as a place where gentrification lives side-by-side with areas of concentrated poverty.
Between gentrification, ongoing poverty, and all the national trends that make life harder, like falling incomes and costlier education, some people in O4W decided to look into something radical.
“We decided to launch this task force looking at guaranteed income as a potential intervention for helping people live a dignified life,” Farokhi said.
Farokhi said when he asked people to join the ask force, everyone said “yes” immediately. He said that wouldn’t have happened without Yang’s 2020 presidential campaign built on universal basic income.
The former presidential contender is in Georgia helping stump for U.S. Senate candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. But Yang talked to the O4W audience about some of what he’s learned working on UBI policy.
Yang said the question he gets most frequently about UBI is how to pay for it. He said that on a macro scale, only the federal government has the resources to issue checks for hundreds of billions of dollars.
But in the short term his own Humanity Forward organization is helping fund a small UBI experiment in Hudson, New York; and he’s watching academic research and smaller-scale projects that use might use local government money, philanthropic money or a mix.
And those are the kinds of resources an O4W basic income project might be able to tap: local public money or, more likely to start with, philanthropy.
Guaranteed income is not “charity,” Yang said. Nor is it like government entitlement programs that tend to be punitive or bureaucratic — or too often make people feel shame.
“This is human empowerment, this is agency, this is the ability for people to actually get their heads up and begin pursuing their genuine aspirations instead of being trapped in a subsistence role.”
What’s as fundamental as the money for Yang is recognizing everyone’s humanity.
“It’s like you see everyone as having intrinsic value and saying, ‘Look, you’re not a supplicant. You’re [an] owner and shareholder in the richest society in the history of the world.”
The capitalist language wasn’t an accident. He’s a serial entrepreneur himself and pointed out that it’s people with a financial cushion who start businesses — and too often it’s only white people who can access that kind of wealth.
Sitting out in the coffee shop audience was former Atlanta mayor and current Task Force co-chair Shirley Franklin. She said she remembered the day in the early 1980s when she was working for then-Mayor Andrew Young, and the news from the U.S. Census came in: that some 23% of people living in Atlanta at the time were living below the poverty line.
Since then, “we’ve tried a lot of solutions, we’ve talked a lot about solutions. Some have worked, some haven’t,” Franklin said. “Unfortunately inequality is pervasive. It is difficult, way too difficult, to make it work financially despite hard work, honest work, 40-hour-a-week work.”
Also at the coffee shop, Task Force member G. Lynne Alston-Leonard, who’s lived in O4W long enough to see gentrification grow right up against some blocks where poverty persists.
She said some folks have to change their thinking, understanding and beliefs surrounding the term or concept of poverty.
“Poverty is not a lack of character,” she said. “It is simply a lack of cash.”