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Andrew Yang, AOC, Harvard professor: Free cash payments would help during coronavirus pandemic

Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang speaks during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Loyola Marymount University on December 19, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

As businesses across the U.S. ask employees to work from home in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, many hourly employees and shift workers whose jobs depend on them being on location are facing an impossible decision: go to work to get paid or stay home to help "flatten the curve" of coronavirus.

That dilemma has helped add fresh fuel to the universal basic income debate. Advocates say if every American were getting some free cash, many more workers wouldn't have to make such a choice.

"Too many Americans are leaving home every day to earn wages and tips to survive, even as businesses dry up and schools are shutting down due to the coronavirus," former presidential candidate Andrew Yang tells CNBC Make It on Friday. Since dropping out of the Democratic race, Yang has started non-profit Humanity Forward to further ideas he popularized with his campaign, including his $1000-per-month UBI payment for all American citizens over 18, which he called the "Freedom Dividend." 

"People who may even have symptoms [of COVID-19] are going to work in public places because they don't feel they have a choice," Yang tells CNBC Make It. "A Universal Basic Income would enable these waitresses and parking attendants and [ride-share] drivers to stay home and make the best choice for themselves, their families and their communities."

Yang has been vocal about how a cash infusion would be a smart way to help Americans. On Monday, he tweeted that UBI was the "only stimulus that would work" to support people affected by the coronavirus. 

Twitter users voiced their support for a cash handout as their paychecks fell in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

And Yang is not alone in calling for UBI amidst the coronavirus pandemic. 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the U.S. Representative for New York's 14th congressional district, said Thursday that universal basic income must be among the measures the government takes to protect people during the coronavirus pandemic.

"This is not the time for half measures. We need to take dramatic action now to stave off the worst public health & economic affects," Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. 

Tulsi Gabbard, U.S. Representative for Hawaii's 2nd congressional district (who is still technically in the race to be the Democratic presidential nominee, though it's virtually impossible for her to collect enough delegates to win), on Thursday introduced legislation (H.Res.897) which would provide $1,000-per-month for all American adults in non-taxable income until "COVID-19 no longer presents a public health emergency," according to a written statement from her office.

Earlier in March, Jason Furman, a professor of the practice of economic policy at Harvard and chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration from 2013 through 2017, penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal calling for fiscal stimulus in the form of a one-time cash payment in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The payment, $1,000 to every adult who is a U.S. citizen or a taxpaying U.S. resident and $500 to every child who meets the same criteria, would help those who have lost their income as a result of coronavirus to pay essential bills or others might save it to spend later, he said in the Wall Street Journal

"Scientists are working tirelessly to develop a vaccine," Furman wrote. "But these are no reasons to delay putting out a generally applicable economic medicine that would help in any downturn."

While the call for UBI cash payments has seen renewed life as the coronavirus upends the lives and paychecks of many Americans, it is also still polarizing. Critics say cash handouts are expensive and financial assistance ought to be conditional on completing some kind of work or training. Others say it is expensive and anti-capitalistic.

See also: 

The number of very rich people surged in 2019—here's why  

Andrew Yang's new non-profit is giving away $500,000 in free cash as a UBI experiment

Why wealth inequality is driving Democrats in the 2020 election

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Here's what universal basic income could mean for Americans
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