Would Andrew Yang’s UBI Plan Actually Help Women?

Andrew Yang, tech entrepreneur and political newbie, has always been a long-shot Democratic presidential nominee. Yet, against all odds, he has outlasted 17 other candidates and is headed to the New Hampshire primary with money in the bank and a coveted spot on the most recent debate stage under his belt. He has garnered attention for his big ideas — especially his spin on the old notion of a universal basic income — and is especially popular with young men. But in spite of all this (or perhaps because of it) Yang still has some trouble talking to women.

It’s not just the way he fist-pumps and swaggers as he hops up onstage with Stephen Colbert, or his endorsement from Dave Chappelle, or the interview with Joe Rogan last year that gained him hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single day. Neither is it just the work environments he’s created, which have led campaign staffers to complain of a “bro-culture problem,” according to the New York Times. It’s also in how he frames his discussion of women and women’s work, extravagantly praising us for our labor and self-sacrifice while reflexively presuming that our most important jobs are of the “feminine” variety, specifically the care of children, the home, and the elderly. “The work of women is undervalued in our society,” Yang tweeted in 2018. “Parenting, teaching, and caregiving are often treated as adding little to no value by the market.” He continued to reiterate the theme: “We all know the work of stay-at-home moms is some of the most important — and difficult — work in our society,” Yang wrote in an essay last year. It may seem improbable in 2020, when 70 percent of mothers with children work outside the home and when, in December, the number of women surpassed men on the nation’s payrolls, that the second-youngest candidate in the Democratic field would so easily conflate “women’s work” and “childcare,” but Yang goes there again and again.

In the lingua franca of the Yang campaign, caregiver is synonymous with woman, and the Freedom Dividend, Yang’s Big Idea — a thousand dollars a month to every American over 18 — is the allowance that permits women to leave the workforce and do the valuable work of looking after home and hearth instead. Or this is the implication, asserted constantly in all of Yang’s messaging. The Freedom Dividend isn’t nefarious, exactly. At its best, it gives certain families a little breathing room to pay for childcare, camp, or tutors; to take that fantasy summer vacation; or to repair the ceiling in the spare bedroom. But at its worst, the Freedom Dividend exacerbates the inequalities that haunt and paralyze us: Neither a windfall nor a social remedy, the dividend amounts to a small, slow cash infusion that fails to address a single one of the political, economic, or cultural inequities that already exist — those between men and women, between women with children and those without, and between rich and poor — but that (like a morphine drip) may help people feel less pain as they languish in the second tier. In fact, if you put Yang’s rhetoric under the microscope, you see a boy-built fantasy in which women reign in the domestic sphere so men can attend to their self-esteem through entrepreneurship and the world of work.

Yang made his most explicit case for an Ozzie-and-Harriet division of labor when, at the fifth Democratic debate, MSNBC anchor Ashley Parker asked all the candidates a two-part question about whether they supported federal paid family leave and what they would do about the astronomical cost of childcare. Yang affirmed his support for the plan by saying “new moms” (not dads or anyone with ailing parents or children) should be able to stay home from work to care for babies. He then showed how his version of a universal basic income could enable women to stay home with kids: “We need to have a Freedom Dividend in place from day one — $1,000 a month for every American adult — which would put, in many cases, $2,000 a month into families’ pockets so that they can either pay for childcare or if they want stay home with the child. We should not be pushing everyone to leave the home and go to the workforce. Many parents see that trade-off and say if they leave the home and work, they’re going to be spending all the money on childcare anyway. In many cases, it would be better if the parent stays home with the child.”

To underscore the point, Yang typically puts his own traditional marriage front and center as exemplary. He praises his wife, Evelyn, publicly and extravagantly, for her devotion to the Yang family unit. “I’d like to talk about my wife,” he says in every stump speech, “who is home with our two children, one of whom is autistic.” Just before Christmas, the campaign released its “Caregiver” ad, a 30-second spot narrated by Evelyn. In frame after frame, women tenderly and patiently care for others — hugging, snuggling, teaching, brushing hair, and lifting children into the air. Evelyn describes her husband as a defender of caregivers/women (“Andrew values what we do, not just for our families but for our nation”) and promises a new world in which caregivers/women are remunerated and recognized for their domestic labor. And while Evelyn talks about how the Freedom Dividend will improve their lives, all the caregivers in the ad smile like Madonnas with barely suppressed joy. Only two of the caregivers in the ad are men: One is shot from the shoulders down, the other from behind. Some men may be reduced to caregiver status, the ad seems to say, but better for everyone if they remain invisible. In Yang’s world, the male caregivers are literally faceless.

Yang’s support for the work of the nation’s caregivers is nice, but it’s shallow and misses the point. Of course some people want or need to stay home with kids or aging parents, and of course they should be able to do that without sacrificing rent. But $12,000 a year doesn’t solve the problem. The Freedom Dividend won’t enable an American woman (or man) to quit her job and stay home with the kids, because she, along with 78 percent of Americans, is probably already living paycheck to paycheck and $12,000 won’t replace the income from her job. Without massive structural overhauls, the Freedom Dividend won’t allow single mothers to stay home with kids, because they are solely responsible for both rent and childcare. It won’t help poor women with children, who, under Yang’s plan, will have to choose between their welfare benefits and the Freedom Dividend (a wash, at best). A couple making $60,000 a year (the median income for a family of four) and earning equally would be down $6,000 annually if one parent chose to stay home, squeezing already thin margins impossibly thinner. Indeed, the families who benefit the most benefit from Yang’s UBI are two-parent families in which one person earns the lion’s share of the income, meaning the other can already afford to stay home.

The Freedom Dividend also does nothing to address the real problem of women and work, which is that women still earn 77 cents to every male dollar, and that’s a lifetime average. Nothing limits a woman’s earning power more than having a baby, after which the wage gap increases exponentially and never recovers. Most women I know don’t mind working. Some of us actually like (or love) to work at jobs outside the home and are good at the non-domestic work we do. What we want is to be able to get ahead at our jobs without worrying about whether our kids are safe, happy, and clean; we want workplace parity with our male colleagues; we want savings and 401(k) plans and a partner at home who shares the whole load.

Yang doesn’t deal with any of this. He doesn’t support a higher minimum wage. He doesn’t support universal health care. He talks a lot about the depression of laid-off truckers, but he doesn’t acknowledge — not really — the fact that the country’s shittiest, lowest-paying jobs are held by women and he doesn’t propose anything to materially change their lives. Occupations like home-health and personal-care aides, usually held by women of color and immigrants, pay subsistence wages (about $24,000 a year) and are among the fastest growing in the country. If caregiving is so important to Yang, why doesn’t he propose giving them a meaningful raise and some social status, instead of the exact same thousand bucks a month he’s giving to his billionaire robot-inventor friends?

This points to the foundational problem with Yang’s UBI plan: It 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. There is a childcare policy on Yang’s website; he proposes guaranteed childcare to all families earning less than $60,000 a year, in a program modeled after the one offered to military families. But he has barely spoken about it, possibly because he knows it’s a skinny, slapdash effort compared with, say, Elizabeth Warren’s robust proposal, which would make childcare available to all parents at a low cost (on a sliding scale from zero to 7 percent of annual income) paid for through a tax on Americans with assets of $50 million or more. Warren knows nothing would give parents more actual freedom to make choices than affordable childcare. The fact that her plan includes quality controls and a raise for day-care workers to help retention and job satisfaction — now that feels like relief to a working parent anxious about leaving her 18-month-old at a day-care center where employees earn on average of $9.40 an hour.

But Yang’s plan makes more sense when you understand his audience. Yang speaks to men — in particular, young white men. He goes on Rogan and Ben Shapiro and Bill Maher and Fox to spin a dystopian narrative of mass social destruction at the hands of robots; of declining birth rates and the end of marriage; of unemployed men on the couch with their depression and their video games, overeating, not exercising, and inclined to violence, killing themselves with opioids and suicide; and then he reveals with a flourish (with PowerPoint slides and graphics) his solution: the Freedom Dividend. And it’s working. In the last quarter of 2019, he raised $16.5 million — more than Amy Klobuchar and not too far behind Warren — and, according to at least one analysis, more than 70 percent of his individual contributions came from men. One December poll showed that, among 18-to-29-year-olds, Yang is twice as popular with men than with women. When you understand this, all the condescending talk about “women’s work” snaps into focus. The soothing helpmeet presiding selflessly over the domestic sphere is a male fantasy. It has nothing to do with how women live or what we need.