Beware of Andrew Yang’s universal basic income if you have disabilities

Some people have treated entrepreneur Andrew Yang like a joke candidate – including, to some extent, Yang himself. He has skateboarded and crowd-surfed on the campaign trail. He has Super Nintendo on his tour bus and celebrated the opening of his New Hampshire office by shooting whipped cream directly into a fan’s mouth. Said the Associated Press: “Of all the many Democrats running for president, Andrew Yang is having the most fun.”

Andrew Yang’s success, however, demands that Americans take him seriously as a candidate. Unfortunately, he and his campaign make this task difficult, particularly when it comes to disability policy. Every single other major candidate has addressed the issue of care for disabled and elderly Americans. And while no platform is perfect, most candidates have a basic understanding of the social safety net, or at least their advisers do. Except maybe Yang’s.

On Monday, Yang finally released his health care policy plan, with a section on people with disabilities. I read it. I also read his book, The War on Normal People, combed his website on details about disability programs, and asked his campaign for comment. And as a disabled person who has relied on various social safety net programs in the past, I am still left confused as to how disability benefits would be affected by the centerpiece of Yang’s policies, universal basic income, or what he calls the Freedom Dividend. His health care policies for disabled people also raise more questions than answers.

How Yang’s Freedom Dividend affects disability benefits

With the Freedom Dividend, the government would pay every American $1,000 per month, no strings attached. This is unlikely to ever make it through Congress. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it did. Then what would happen to disability benefits?

It is difficult to analyze the impact of the Freedom Dividend on other social safety net programs like Social Security, Medicaid, or food stamps. Andrew Yang’s new health care plan and the “Care for People with Disabilities” section say absolutely nothing on the matter. When Vox contacted Yang’s campaign for clarification, his national press secretary insisted that Yang’s plan “touches on aspects” of disability benefits, but did not explain how or in what way. I was repeatedly given answers and sent links to parts of the website that were totally irrelevant to the questions I’d asked.

A major issue for how the Freedom Dividend might impact disability benefits is whether a program will “stack” with it. That is, whether a person will still be able to receive their existing benefits while also receiving the Freedom Dividend. While Yang does outline some social programs that will “stack” — like Social Security retirement benefits — it is an incomplete list.

For many of the programs he omits — like SNAP (better known as food stamps) or housing vouchers — a person has to demonstrate a certain amount of financial hardship in order to qualify. While the Freedom Dividend should hypothetically be available to everyone, his campaign’s loose grasp on what benefits disabled people even use in the first place suggests it may not.

For example, the FAQ on universal basic income on Yang’s website includes basic errors. It notes: “some people who receive more than $1,000 a month in SSI would choose to take the Freedom Dividend because it has no preconditions.” This means they they can opt-in without having “to deal with a degrading and paternalistic bureaucracy,” Yang’s national press secretary told me. However, the problem with this statement is that it conflates SSI, Supplemental Security Income, with SSDI, Social Security Disability Insurance, which encompass very different things.

SSDI consists of cash payments to people who have a disability that prevents them from having a job. The amount of money a person gets from SSDI is based on work credits — the longer a person has worked and the higher the person’s previous wage, the more money that person may be entitled to.

SSI, on the other hand, is for people who are poor or disabled and who do not have the work experience necessary to qualify for SSDI. Yang’s point about people who receive more than $1,000 a month in SSI is particularly nonsensical because it is impossible to receive more than $1,000 per month in SSI. The maximum allowed federal rate for an individual in 2019 is $771. Of course, $1,000 is more than $771, so it may seem, on the surface, that Yang is essentially offering a $229 increase in benefits to the 3.4 million Americans who rely on SSI. And who couldn’t use a little more money? To paraphrase a Yang campaign slogan, “math!”

Unfortunately, much like the policy, the math isn’t that simple.

Many states require that people qualify for SSI in order to receive government-funded long-term services and supports through Medicaid. If a quadriplegic person requires an aide to get out of bed, get dressed, and get showered every morning, that person needs to either qualify for SSI to get those services, or pay for them out of pocket — an incredibly expensive proposition.

Most jobs simply don’t pay enough to cover basic needs, like rent and food, on top of personal assistance that can cost upward of $45,000 a year. Many disabled and elderly people purposefully impoverish themselves, turning down paid work and emptying their savings accounts in order to qualify for services they need just to get out of bed in the morning. Experts call this the poverty trap.

It is unclear whether choosing the Freedom Dividend over SSI would impact access to these necessary services. Yang’s website doesn’t say, and after several exchanges, Yang’s spokesperson eventually sent me a link to the FAQ, which, again, doesn’t answer the question. It’s unclear if taking the Freedom Dividend might cause someone to lose access to the benefits they need to stay alive.

How Yang’s health care plan helps people with disabilities

Yang’s other mentions of disability are bizarrely and arbitrarily limited. In his official disability policy platform titled “Care for People with Disabilities,” Yang calls for ensuring wheelchair accessibility, but only for hospitals, and with no explanation as to how he would do so. He calls hearing aids and mobility devices “preventative care services … to prevent further secondary conditions.” Hearing aids help with hearing loss in a pretty straightforward way, so I’m not sure what secondary conditions Yang’s platform is talking about.

Regarding questions on long-term services and supports for people with disabilities, Yang’s campaign insisted that their plan “touches on aspects of it.” A spokesperson did not explain which aspects when pressed.

Yang’s campaign was similarly opaque on whether he supports Medicare for All. On one hand, it’s listed on his website as a key part of his policy platform. But in his expanded health care plan, he notes, “swiftly reformatting 18% of our economy and eliminating private insurance for millions of Americans is not a realistic strategy,” a direct reference to the single-payer plans proposed by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Instead, Yang boldly declares, “We are having the wrong conversation about healthcare.” But what is the right conversation? For Yang, it’s shifting the “focus away from funding mechanisms and budget towards solving the major problems within the healthcare system.”

Instead of a comprehensive plan addressing access to health care and insurance affordability like the ones proposed by the other frontrunners, he addresses a mishmash of seemingly unconnected issues, from telemedicine to tort reform to electronic medical records. It is unclear why some issues warrant Andrew Yang’s attention and not others. Sure, making HIV prevention medication and reproductive health care more widely available are worthy goals, but there’s no coherence or overarching policy.

This dedication to the arbitrary when it comes to disability extends beyond the borders of Yang’s health care plan. The first bullet point on Yang’s mental health plan, for example, is to begin a national anti-stigma campaign for mental health issues called “Everybody Needs Help Sometimes.” Yang also calls for incentives for improved mental health outcomes.

The thing is, some people need help all the time. Incentives for improved mental health outcomes are not useful for those of us who will never be “well.” Yang’s autism policy also seems strangely short-sighted, considering his own son is on the spectrum. He calls for more funding for early diagnosis and therapy for children, but autism is not a childhood condition. Yang does not have a proposal for when autistic people inevitably grow up. He makes the same call for other disabilities in his wider disability policy platform, and it is equally, bafflingly limited.

As one of only seven candidates who have qualified for the Democratic debate this week, Yang is still in this race. But the caucuses and primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire are approaching, and as the Democratic field tightens, candidates face increased scrutiny over their policies. Yang certainly has big ideas, but big ideas are not enough to improve the lives of Americans with disabilities. He needs to understand the fundamentals before proposing radical systemic change. And it is abundantly clear, given the existing evidence, that he does not.

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