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James Felton Keith is trying not to talk too much about economic theory on the campaign trail.
But that can be tough for the economist, ethnographer, former engineer and author who’s running for Congress in Upper Manhattan and The Bronx on a platform of universal basic income.
The notion of every adult receiving an annual cash stipend got a buzzy entrance on the political scene, thanks to the Democratic presidential primary campaign by Andrew Yang, who reportedly is now mulling a run for New York City mayor.
But it’s nothing new for Keith, who has been studying and promoting the concept of universal basic income, or UBI, for 15 years.
Keith ran briefly for the same congressional seat in 2018 with UBI as a central theme, up against incumbent Rep. Adriano Espaillat. Now, he’s one of eight candidates for Congress in New York state who have incorporated universal basic income into their campaign pitch.
And the effect from Yang, who has endorsed Keith, has a lot to do with that, he said.
“It was the greatest PR we could have for the concept of basic income,” he said over coffee at Corner Social in Harlem before a round of gathering petition signatures to get on the ballot for the June 23 primary.
Making Big Tech Pay
There are differences, however, between Keith’s version of UBI and Yang’s. The one-time presidential candidate saw universal basic income as a “freedom dividend” that would come from a 10% taxes on goods and services from businesses.
Keith’s plan is “not a tax,” his campaign site says, but a “corporate productivity dividend” similar to what a company’s stakeholders would get. His vision is that every American adult would receive $1,000 a month, based on what he calls “data reparations” for personal information mined and sold by companies.
He wrote a book on the idea, which boils down to this: Each individual’s data has “an intrinsic value,” he says, from which corporations are pulling massive profits.
“That value exists because you have interactions with other individuals, you have friction, you have transactions,” he said. All of your data — where you live, who you are, where you walk through the city, what type of bottles water you buy — creates value for a handful of companies and institutions.
“You are entitled to a piece of the value that proliferate from those transactions,” he said.
According to the national UBI Caucus, eight Congressional candidates in New York state have signed a pledge to introduce legislation promoting the concept if elected.
A ninth, Suraj Patel, who is again challenging Rep. Carolyn Maloney in Manhattan and Queens, has been publicly supportive of UBI, but hasn’t joined the caucus.
Most are running in New York City or nearby, and all are Democrats except a candidate in Long Island running as an independent.
The group includes Badrun Khan, running for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s seat in The Bronx and Queens, and Chivona Newsome, a co-founder of the New York chapter of Black Lives Matter who is running in the crowded South Bronx contest.
Other UBI candidates include Jonathan Herzog (NY-10 in Manhattan and Brooklyn), Samuel Ravelo (NY-16 in the north Bronx and Westchester), Daniel Ross (NY-2 in Long Island), Lutchi Gayot (NY-9 in Brooklyn), and Paperboy Love Prince (NY-7 in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan).
For Newsome, speaking to voters in the district, the poorest in the United States, crystallized the dire need for an economic boost. “My lens of looking at UBI is from a social justice lens,” Newsome said. “I feel that no one deserves to be poor.”
Ryan Blevins, a Congressional candidate in California who founded the UBI Caucus, said about two candidates a day were joining the group since its site went live in October.
After Yang dropped out of the presidential race on Feb. 11, Blevins saw “exponential growth.”
“I’ve actually lost count of how many supporters we have, because they keep joining every day,” he said.
UBI candidates have varied and diverse ideas about how to implement a basic income. Should it be paid for through the private sector, as Keith envisions, or through taxes? Should it replace current social safety net programs, or add to them? And who should receive it?
Some, like Yang, think every adult should get UBI. Others believe only specific populations, usually marginalized or low-income people, should receive it.
The latter is the approach at the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED), a basic income pilot program that is giving $500 a month to 125 low-income residents of Stockton, Calif., for 18 months, no strings attached.
Sukhi Samra, the director of SEED, said so far, the results show only 2% of recipients are unemployed and not looking for work — another 11% are unemployed and looking for work — and 65% of the money is being spent on food and household items.
“Folks are working. The economy isn’t. You’re not getting paid enough,” she said. “The money’s being spent on basic needs.”
Economist Robert Seamans, an associate professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University, believes research to date is insufficient to support conclusions about how universal basic income might function on a larger scale.
For example, receiving a stipend for a limited time is very different than “getting that money in perpetuity,” he said.
“That might change consumption behavior, or job search behavior, relative to a setting where you knew you’d be getting that money no matter what,” he said.
In a place like New York, he worries that an across-the-board boost would translate to inflation. If everybody has $1,000 more to spend, he wondered if rent prices would “go up even more than they have been.”
Heard on the Street
Blevin said that most of the UBI candidates he’s hearing from are running in “poor districts that are surrounded by rich districts.” Many are in New York and California.
Keith sees a unique opportunity in a poor, Democratic area to replace an incumbent who took the seat in a historic 2016 win as the first Dominican-born person in the House of Representatives.
Keith contends that Espaillat is not progressive enough for the district. The challenger is banking on support from the black community in Central Harlem, Hispanic residents of West and East Harlem and newer white residents, too, in a district that is rapidly gentrifying.
“We have this big LGBT coalition, and coupled with a big Black Lives Matter coalition, coupled with a big tech and basic income coalition — we could run against any incumbent,” he said.
Campaigning in the South Bronx, Newsome often opens conversations with voters with a simple question: What would you do with an extra $1,000 a month?
The responses are “heartbreaking,” she said.
“I’d be able to afford all of my medicines per month,’” she recalled some saying. “I will be able to pay all of my rent on time.”
CORRECTION (March 10, 2020): A previous version of this article stated that 2% of SEED recipients are unemployed. In fact, 2% of recipients in the program are unemployed and not looking for work. Another 11% of the total are unemployed but looking for work, according to the program’s director.
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