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How the pandemic has boosted the idea of universal basic income to battle poverty

Robin Hood CEO Wes Moore talks with Yahoo Senior Writer Zack Guzman on the idea of a universal basic income to help battle poverty.

Video Transcript

WES MOORE: I think it's important for people to understand when we're talking about people who are living in poverty or living under the weight of poverty, it's important for people to understand who we're talking about. Because oftentimes, people think when a person is in poverty, oh, that's a person I pass a person on the street, and that person's in poverty. That person is in poverty, yes, but here's the reality, and this is just New York City, half of New York City, before COVID-19, half of New York City was in poverty for at least a year over the past four years. Not half of a burrow, not half of a demographic, half of the city was in poverty for at least a year over the past four years.

So when people say, well, I don't know anybody who lives in poverty, the reality is that you are probably passing people and interacting people who are living in poverty every single day, and you just don't know it. The people who are serving you your coffee in the morning. You're staying in hotel, the person who's changing your bed sheets. The people who you see doing even city and state functioning jobs that are still below poverty line.

These things are real, and so I think what's important for people to understand is not just what does the horror or poverty look like for people who are living in poverty, and oftentimes, it's very predictable in generational poverty, this lack of economic mobility, this lack of economic opportunity that people are succumbing to. But also to understand that it's not something that's foreign, it's not something that's separate, it's not something that's away, it's not the others. But that in many ways, there are people who are completely around us, and actually that line between them and where we are is remarkably thin.

ZACH GUZMAN: Yeah, and when we talk about solutions to all this, obviously the need and the speed to get aid to people in need has obviously accelerated here in 2020, but an interesting kind of trend here, and just to step back and think about it, was one of these ideas of universal basic income. I know a large portion of the relief you've been giving now is basic cash assistance, just getting cash out the door to people in need. We've been chatting with mayors around the US who are increasingly realizing the importance of cash handouts here in this pandemic, but now it seems like it's changed the views of a lot of people who might have thrown the idea of universal basic income out the window. What have you learned about that being a more important tool to address some of these issues?

WES MOORE: I think we've learned that cash support matters, and I think that we've learned that, you know, we really do have to ask ourselves a fundamental question of what does it take for a person to survive? And this goes well past and beyond the question of things like income and a minimum wage and a living wage, but what does it take for a person to exist and survive? And you know, and while I'm very excited, because I think it's still early for people to say can a UBI work on a grand national level, because I think there's still data that we still need to be able to see and understand what it looks like in a scalable fashion.

I think we've been incredibly encouraged by what we've seen from some individual states and individual cities, and I think we've been incredibly encouraged by the work that we've been able to do on the cash assistance side within Robin Hood. Because just if you look at this past year, you know, Robin Hood has raised over $60 million in relief, and about half of that has gone towards cash assistance. And when we say cash assistance, it is literally providing cash supports to people who in that moment need it most.

And even when people say, well, you know, there was a cash assistance element that came out of the CARES Act, that's true, but millions of people were left out of that. For people who were undocumented, even if you were working and paying taxes, you were left out of that conversation. If you're part of a mixed status household, you were left out of that conversation. If you were working but weren't making enough money to hit the income tax filing threshold, you were left out of that conversation. And so we have devoted a good portion of our entire relief fund really on just giving people cash supports and cash assistance at a time and in a mechanism where we feel that they not only need it most, but we feel that we're going to give them the greatest amount of autonomy to know what the best and most important way to spend it at that time.