Andrew Yang’s Ideas on Universal Basic Income Earned Him Fans. But Can He Win Votes?

In March, as New York City was gripped by the COVID-19 outbreak, Andrew Yang’s nonprofit, Humanity Forward, announced that it planned to give one-time grants of a thousand dollars each to a thousand residents in the Bronx. Yang had become famous running for President as an evangelist for a universal basic income, and the new grants were intended to demonstrate the importance of giving people cash at a time of unprecedented crisis. When the pandemic hit, poor minority communities across the country felt its effects especially acutely. In the Bronx, the city’s poorest borough, and the one with the highest percentage of Black and Hispanic residents, the unemployment rate approached twenty-five per cent. The median income of Humanity Forward’s grant recipients was around eighteen thousand dollars a year. Fifty-nine per cent of them had seen their family earnings fall or disappear entirely during the pandemic. Earlier this month, as Yang prepared to enter the race to be New York’s next mayor, I asked his campaign if I could talk with a grantee. They arranged for me to meet a woman named Ramona Ferreyra on a Friday morning in a playground in the South Bronx, a few blocks from where she lives. Ferreyra and I sat down on a bench, our coats buttoned up to our chins against the chill, and she told me about herself.

Ferreyra is forty. She grew up in both New York City and the Dominican Republic. She earned a bachelor’s degree from John Jay College, a master’s degree in diplomacy and military studies from Hawaii Pacific University, and she finished her studies with a hundred and eighty thousand dollars in student debt. Between school and work, she spent a decade in Hawaii, and for a few years she made good money working for the F.B.I. and the Department of Defense. Then she was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, an inflammatory disease, in addition to autoimmune issues that she’d faced since high school. “The funnest one is Sjogren’s syndrome,” she said, smirking a bit behind a white face mask printed with a frog symbol, “which means you can’t create tears or saliva. So that keeps things really interesting.” She patted a bottle filled with lemon water that she carries wherever she goes.

The pain and other symptoms of her conditions made holding an office job difficult. A few years ago, out of work, and with her health and finances cratering, Ferreyra moved into her grandmother’s one-bedroom apartment in the New York City Housing Authority’s Mitchel Houses. With some of what was left of her savings from Hawaii, she started a business called Ojala Threads, which makes bags, clothing, and accessories printed with Caribbean and pre-Columbian symbols. Like most small businesses, it struggled to make money. Ferreyra applied for public assistance. In Hawaii, she had, for a time, made a six-figure income. In New York City, she learned how to make do on about three hundred and fifty dollars a month. “I actually budget myself now to two hundred dollars a month, so that I can have some money left over,” she said.

When the pandemic hit, Ojala Threads all but shut down. The pop-up markets and craft fairs where Ferreyra sold her products were cancelled. Ferreyra and her grandmother were cooped up in the apartment, dependent on deliveries. “We weren’t going out,” Ferreyra said. “You could no longer do comparison shopping or coupons.” A few weeks into the city’s spring shutdown, Ferreyra got a text from Neighborhood Trust, a community group that had been helping her try to get her student loans discharged. Neighborhood Trust told her that she’d been selected for one of the Humanity Forward grants. “I was like, O.K., so I don’t have to panic?” she said, describing her reaction. “I can’t remember the last time I had a thousand dollars at a time.” With the money, Ferreyra paid off a credit card she’d used to buy inventory for Ojala Threads. She bought a steam mop for the apartment. She spent sixty dollars on Google ads for her business. She bought pet supplies for her dog and her rabbit. The grant—combined with supplemental unemployment benefits and the twelve-hundred-dollar stimulus check passed by Congress in the spring—gave her breathing room. She put a thousand dollars in a C.D. “Just that ability to make choices was amazing,” she said.

We talked politics. In addition to trying to get Ojala Threads off the ground, Ferreyra has been involved in community activism in recent years. She first heard of U.B.I. during the Democratic primary race in 2019, and she was so enthusiastic about the idea that she made a small donation to Yang’s campaign. Ultimately, though, she voted for Bernie Sanders. I asked for her thoughts about the city’s mayoral race, where Yang has entered a crowded Democratic primary that will likely decide who succeeds Bill de Blasio in Gracie Mansion. “I mean, I like Scott Stringer,” Ferreyra said, referring to the city’s comptroller. She believes Stringer, a longtime city pol, knows how to get things done, although she said she was waiting to hear more concrete policy proposals from him. “Andrew seems to take the completely opposite approach,” Ferreyra said. “Which is like, ‘This is what I think are the big issues. And here’s some insane solutions for that.’ And you’re just like, ‘Oh, shit.’ ”

A few hours later, I met Yang for an interview in Elmhurst, Queens. I found him, surrounded by supporters and a documentary-film crew, in a Taiwanese restaurant’s sidewalk tent. The plastic sides of the tent were flapping in the wind. Yang, wearing a black “Yang for New York” mask and black pea coat, was sitting at a four-top with an aide and the actor Daniel Dae Kim, a plate of boiled peanuts and a pot of tea set out in front of them. I wished Yang a happy belated birthday—he had turned forty-six that Wednesday—and asked him if he’d received anything good. “One of my sons, on Wednesday night, said it didn’t seem like I’d had a very special birthday,” Yang said. “I asked him why. And he said because I hadn’t had any cake.” Yang said he did get a birthday call from the comedian Dave Chappelle, though, which was nice.

Yang ran for President as a nobody. Now he is running for mayor as a celebrity. But his entry into the race had been bumpy. A wayward quote to the Times about why he and his family had left their Manhattan apartment for their upstate New York weekend home during the pandemic had provoked the kind of gaffe-outrage news cycle he’d managed to avoid during the Presidential race. The other candidates pounced. Stringer’s press secretary issued a snarky statement: “We welcome Andrew Yang to the mayor’s race—and to New York City.” When Yang’s first official day as a candidate included a visit to the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, a spokesman for Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, said, “Eric doesn’t need a tour of Brownsville—he was born there.” (Yang was born in Schenectady, grew up in Westchester County, and moved to New York in 1996.) Even as I was talking with Ferreyra, people were finding new reasons to yell at Yang online. That same Friday morning, he tweeted a video of himself buying a bunch of bananas and two bottles of green tea inside a gleaming shop. “I love bodegas,” Yang said, setting off a dispute about whether the term could be properly applied to what looked like a large, gentrified market. During the Presidential campaign, Yang had played the role of interloper as a guileless everyman, but now, there was an effort underway to paint him as not being a “real New Yorker.”

“I genuinely have not noticed much of what you’re talking about,” Yang said, shrugging, when I brought up the criticisms being lobbed at him. He said that, in the early going, he preferred running for mayor to running for President. There was less travel, and he got to see his wife and kids at the end of the day. He took another stab at addressing his critics. “When I was running for President, there was zero upside to attacking Yang, and everyone knew that—I was everybody’s friend, and I’m actually pretty friendly,” he said. His opponents in that race didn’t think he had a chance to win. “The fact that people didn’t attack me in the Presidential makes perfect sense. And to that point, I probably would be much more concerned if people were not attacking me in this race.”

I told Yang about my conversation with Ferreyra: how she had learned about U.B.I. thanks to his efforts, and yet how she didn’t sound like she was going to vote for him. I’d seen Yang campaigning in Iowa, and spoken to many Iowans who had become convinced of the righteousness of his U.B.I. pitch. But he hadn’t, in the end, attracted many voters in the state’s caucuses. “I think that that’s the wrong way to look at it,” Yang said. “My goal has always been to help improve people’s lives. So the question for Ramona would be, did the thousand dollars help?” I said it clearly had. “You’re trying to draw a link which I frankly have never cared about,” Yang said. “When I was in the Bronx yesterday, a young man came up to me and said, ‘Hey, my wife was one of the recipients of the thousand-dollar grant, and it made a huge difference to my family, and I really want to thank you.’ And I was super happy and grateful. But you know, it never even occurred to me to ask, ‘Are you going to vote for me?’ ”

The major factor that distinguishes Yang’s mayoral campaign from his Presidential effort is the fact that he can’t really run on his signature issue. Even the mayor of the wealthiest city in the wealthiest country in the history of the world can’t make U.B.I. happen on his own—by one estimate, paying every New Yorker a thousand dollars a month would more than double the city’s nearly ninety-billion-dollar annual budget. Instead, Yang’s mayoral campaign proposes spending a billion dollars a year to give the city’s poorest five hundred thousand residents an extra two to five thousand dollars a year, on top of any public assistance they already receive. In his Presidential run, his pitch was that the economy needed to be modernized to account for automation and other technological advances. In his mayoral run, his pitch is that New York City should become the “anti-poverty” city.

I asked Yang to describe the transition from his universal proposal to this more targeted one. He said that given the constraints on a city’s budget, compared to a country’s—a city can’t print money or incur debt—and taking into account the multi-billion-dollar budget shortfalls facing the city thanks to the coronavirus crisis, he’d had to be “hard-nosed and realistic” about how much money a mayor could give people. A billion dollars in his first year as mayor was the figure that he and his team landed on after evaluating ways to save money, stretch resources, and generate revenue. “Look, I think everyone in New York knows that if Andrew Yang had his druthers, everyone in New York City would be getting a thousand dollars a month,” he said. “But, in this context, one billion dollars a year would be an enormous investment in people.”

Without the signature policy that propelled him to debate stages alongside Joe Biden and Kamala Harris just a year ago, Yang has quickly dived into other policy debates. He has proposed that the city should wrest control of its public-transit system away from the state government, that the N.Y.P.D. have a civilian commissioner, that sex work be decriminalized, that Governor’s Island become home to a casino, and that the city develop a smartphone app to verify people’s COVID-19 vaccination status. His campaign Web site also proposes giving the city’s public-housing residents billions of dollars worth of “Borough Bucks,” a “trust currency” that would recirculate in the community and therefore, in theory, multiply its value. Ferrerya said that public-housing activists she knew were immediately critical of the proposal. “People were like, this guy’s such a fucking joke. How can he be advocating for this? What the fuck are ‘Borough Bucks’?” she said. “And I was like, you know, am I the only person here that would love to live in a society where we can actually barter our talents and skills, instead of depending on this economy that’s not working for us?” Yang made a similar point when I asked him about the origins of the Borough Bucks proposal. “If you’re going to invest resources in a community, your preference is that the resources circulate within the community, particularly if you can serve multiple goals,” he said. “They’re just imaginative ways for communities to unlock resources.”

An aide said that we were running out of time. I asked Yang about the debate, now happening in Congress, about whether Biden should push for fourteen-hundred-dollar stimulus checks in the next bailout package, or two-thousand-dollar checks, or two thousand dollars a month until the economy rebounds. Yang said that he favored the last proposal. I asked him how he felt about the fact that even as other candidates in the race were attacking him, several—Eric Adams, the former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales, and the City Council member Carlos Menchaca—had expressed interest in the U.B.I. policies he had championed. “I would love to check out their plans,” Yang said. “It’s an idea whose time has come. I’m certainly very proud to have contributed to the idea’s popularity, but anyone who wants to adapt a version of it, like, fantastic.”