Suraj Patel, a 36-year-old attorney, businessman, former Obama White House staffer and assistant professor at New York University is one of three Democrats running against incumbent Democrat Carolyn Maloney to represent New York's 12th Congressional district. This is Patel's second time running against Maloney, and the primary election will take place June 23.
In order to stand out, Patel is putting forth a bold policy proposal that he calls "Universal Basic Income for Kids."
Patel proposes giving New York families a universal child allowance of $500 per month, for every child aged five and younger, and $350 per month for every child between the ages of six and 17.
He says the system would be more efficient than existing programs aimed at helping families and could be expanded nationally.
"Currently, we have a patchwork system of assistance to families with kids. We have the Child Tax Credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Dependent Care Tax Credit," Patel tells CNBC Make It. "But the problem with all these benefits is that they are phased in, meaning that the beneficiary has to have a minimum income to receive them."
The issue: Many individuals living in poverty don't earn an income or have difficulty keeping a stable job, Patel says.
"That's the person that all of these politics leave out the most and that's who needs the help the most."
He also says UBI for kids could cut childhood poverty and minimize bureaucracy by lifting families off of other social programs such as food stamps — effectively cutting costs and giving families more choice about how they use their funds each month.
There are no restrictions on how families can spend the funds. Opponents of UBI say this freedom will be abused by bad actors who will spend the money on unnecessary luxuries rather than on their children, but Patel says these stories are based on "stereotypes."
"Let's say the $500 comes in and people buy better food or mom takes a vacation, it doesn't matter. It's freeing up $500 other dollars that can go to the kids," he says. "It's impossible to separate those choices, and budgeting happens at the family unit in America."
Louisiana Sen. Huey Long was the first major figure to back UBI in the U.S. when he proposed a minimum income of $2,000 to $2,500 in 1934 (between $38,503 and $48,129 in 2020 dollars), but it was most recently popularized by former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who tried to sell Americans on the idea that all citizens, ages 18 to 64, should get a check for $1,000 every month, no strings attached, from the U.S. government.
Yang visited Patel's campaign office during his first run against Maloney. "He contributed $1,000 to my campaign in 2018 and gave me a signed copy of his book. He sent me a touching personal message after we came up short in the primary, and we became friends," says Patel. "We have kept in touch and, though he clearly got very busy, I am incredibly proud as an Asian American and non-career politician with how many barriers he broke for us."
While Patel says he is grateful that the idea of UBI has recently become more popular, he doesn't feel tied to calling it "Universal Basic Income for Kids," admitting that the policy is not fully universal (it's only for people with children), nor can children truly earn an income.
"It's a family-first policy, however you want to call it," he says. "Of course 'UBI' being so top of mind right now from a sales standpoint is good, but I also do like the use of the word 'dividend' and 'family allowance.'"
However you want to describe it, Patel's so-called "UBI for Kids" is part of a larger package of policy measures — including 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave for all parents, a universal public option for childcare, universal pre-K and Medicare for kids — that he estimates would cut the childhood poverty rate from 20.3% to 9.8% in New York, and if applied at the federal level could cut the childhood poverty rate from 15.7% to 6.3% in one year.
Patel points to Canada's child benefit, which gives families money each month to help pay for the costs of raising a child, as an example of the impact child benefits can have on the child poverty rate. Canadian families can get up to $6,639 for each child under six and up to $5,602 for each child aged six to 17 for the July 2019 to June 2020 benefit year. The benefit took effect in 2017 and reduced the number of children living in poverty by 278,000 in one year. To qualify, Canadians must live with the child and be the primary caregiver.
According to UNICEF, the childhood poverty rate in Canada is approximately 13.3%. In the U.S., it's closer to 23.1%. Among the world's 35 richest countries, Romania was the only country UNICEF found to have a higher rate.
"Our child poverty rate is a moral disgrace and an economic drag," says Patel. "There's so much evidence about reducing childhood poverty's downstream effects — less incarceration, more apprenticeships, more real employment."
On her website, Maloney calls paid family leave one of her top legislative priorities. In 2019, part of her legislation, the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act, was included in the National Defense Authorization Act, securing 12 weeks of paid parental leave for the birth, adoption, or fostering of a child for 2.1 million federal workers.
She is also the sponsor of a bill that would make the Child Care Tax Credit refundable and has been a long-time defender of the Child Dependant Care Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit and Dependent Care Assistance Programs.
CNBC Make It reached out to Maloney's team, but they declined to comment further.
Addressing childhood poverty means addressing how we appropriate funds as a country, argues Patel.
"Our economy and our government expenditure is completely and heavily balanced towards seniors and older people," he says.
According to an analysis by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, less than 10% of federal budget is spent on children directly through services like education, or indirectly through parents via benefits such as tax credits. The CRFB found that over 30% of government spending goes to the elderly through benefits such as Social Security.
"As a result, children face poverty rates nearly twice as high as the elderly," reads the report, which estimates that by 2021 the federal government will spend more on paying off debt than it will providing support for children.
"That's not to say we shouldn't spend money on seniors, but the thing is that there's a massive imbalance in an economy when the time that you are most financially stressed, because you're not a high income earner yet and you're between 20 and 40 years of age, is when you earn the least and then you try to have a child," says Patel.
One potential reason for this imbalance is that senior citizens vote at some of the highest rates while children cannot.
"But families vote," he adds.
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