BY ALETA LaFARGUE | In under two years, the policy of UBI (universal basic income) has gone from a fringe idea to one of the most popular solutions to weathering the COVID-19 pandemic. And for good reason: Seventy percent of New Yorkers lost employment income, and employment in Manhattan plunged by almost 20 percent.
Despite the desire of some ideologues to fully reopen the economy, the fact of the matter is many jobs cannot be performed safely now, a reality that may continue into 2022. Even then, many people will only be able to return to work if others have sufficient disposable income to demand enough goods and services.
Unfortunately, many New Yorkers cannot and should not be expected to work, and will have to hunker down for the foreseeable future. In order to endure this economic tumult, they will need cash assistance to put food on the table and pay their bills during the pandemic. A UBI of at least $1,000 per household will help keep New Yorkers’ lives stable in a time of profound economic uncertainty. If it proves successful, we should then extend UBI beyond the lockdown.
I know some of you may be rolling your eyes at the prospect of a new “entitlement,” but a UBI provides the massive potential to help alleviate poverty in New York City. Everyone is paid the same, across socioeconomic status, race and gender, providing a path to equality. It will also help afford people a cushion for the future, when many jobs may become obsolete due to automation. Lower-income New Yorkers will not have to work themselves to the bone just to make ends meet.
Make no mistake, $1,000 is not very much money in our city, which is why most will spend it on essentials like food, rent and healthcare, immediately reinserting capital into our economy, and later, revenues into our city’s depleted coffers. If anything, most New Yorkers will quickly realize how little this amount of money can actually pay for, ultimately providing motivation to work even harder!
Moreover, a direct cash transfer is one of the most cost-efficient methods to provide relief and help combat poverty. We will save money that would go toward massive bureaucratic analysis to determine who is “worthy” of aid. People can determine for themselves whether they need, say, money for food versus rent versus utilities. The cost can also be offset by spending less on specific existing programs.
Yes, I am aware that we cannot just print money at will, and funding for UBI will have to come from somewhere. That is why I propose funding UBI with a pied-à-terre tax, which would raise property taxes on residences in the city that are not people’s primary homes. This is a very fair tax, since only those who can afford a second home in our city will incur the expense. If someone is economically able to have a New York City apartment as their second (or third or fourth) home, then they can manage to pay more in taxes. Besides, widespread parking of these often empty units inflates real-estate prices and rents for the rest of us, while the absentee owners are contributing little to our local economy.
Granted, this plan will not come easy. Perhaps the biggest challenge is that, like so many decisions in our city, the road to passing a pied-à-terre tax runs through Albany. However, the Democratic majorities in both chambers, combined with changing political winds nationwide, make today perhaps the most opportune time yet to enact UBI.
This pandemic has been one of the most devastating experiences too many of us have ever faced. Yet, with great challenge comes great opportunity. We have an extraordinary occasion upon which to ensure all New Yorkers can meet their basic needs not just now, but for many years to come.
As your councilwoman, I will do everything in my power to make that happen.
LaFargue is a candidate for City Council District 3 (Greenwich Village, Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen) and president of the Manhattan Plaza Tenants Association.