Meet universal basic income’s unlikely Bay Area evangelist


SAN FRANCISCO, CA - FEBRUARY 24: Gisele Huff is photographed in her home on Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, in San Francisco, Calif. Huff is a proponent of universal basic income. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

Gisele Huff is convinced universal basic income is finally having its moment. The 84-year-old French native and San Francisco resident is the president of the Gerald Huff Fund for Humanity, a nonprofit that promotes universal basic income as a solution to economic inequality.

While Huff’s organization is only a few years old, it has already made its mark in the Bay Area. Santa Clara County’s Board of Supervisors is considering a pilot program that would provide youth exiting foster care with a basic $1,000 monthly income. If approved later this year, the program would likely be the first of its kind in the nation. It is also the product of Huff’s advocacy: She persuaded Supervisor Dave Cortese to explore the idea in Santa Clara County.

Huff is an unexpected convert to the cause. She survived the Holocaust with her mother by hiding in Southern France; 18 of her relatives were killed in concentration camps. They immigrated to the U.S. in 1947. Huff became a secretary, then earned a PhD in political science from Columbia University, and spent most of her career working in education and development. She became interested in UBI through conversations with her son, Gerald Huff, a Tesla engineer who worried about technological unemployment. In 2018, Gerald died from pancreatic cancer and Huff founded the Fund for Humanity the following year. She sat down with this news organization to discuss her vision for making basic income mainstream and how her advocacy carries on her son’s legacy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Can you tell me about how you became an advocate for UBI?

A: In November of 2018, my son Gerald died of pancreatic cancer at age 54 after being diagnosed seven weeks before. Incredibly, his father died of pancreatic cancer when he was 54 years old, 32 years before that. So it was devastating. And [Gerald] had converted me from being a libertarian with the advent of 2008 when the economic system went awry. People lost their homes, their cars, couldn’t send their kids to college. I realized that what I had been able to achieve, coming to the U.S. when I was 11-years-old with my mother with $400 to our name, that who I am is the American Dream. And I realized that it was no longer available.

Q: And your son was concerned about those same issues? How did he come to his perspective on UBI?

A: Gerald was the software engineer for the Model 3 Tesla. So he has been a techie all of his life and what really spurred him on to look into this in a deeper way was his fear of technological unemployment. The robots are coming. And the potential of that technology is what Gerald was aware of — it’s immense.

Gerald passed away in 2018. And I began doing due diligence on UBI. I knew a number of people in the UBI world that Gerald had introduced me to, who connected me to other people in the field.  And I looked at who was doing what. All the organizations were doing was writing and talking. They weren’t doing anything. So when that was clear to me I started the Gerald Huff Fund for Humanity.

Q: Different people have different ideas about what exactly UBI should look like. What’s yours? 

A: It would be $1,000 a month and it runs like social security. It’s an automatic system. All you need is a bank account. So UBI is a direct payment to your bank account on a monthly basis. It has no requirements. When you’re 18 it starts and it goes on until you die.

Q: And everyone would get the same amount? Including the wealthiest households?

A: Yes. For the people who are wealthy, it will disappear because $1,000 doesn’t mean anything. But it will mean the world for the people who are so marginalized now, like foster kids or abused women who can’t leave a situation because they don’t have a dime to their name. It is a huge incentive for people to move on, to do things, take risks that they would not do before.

Q: Some critics of UBI say that it could incentivize people not to work, because no matter what they do they will get a monthly paycheck. What is your response?

A: If you have a job, you’re not going to stop working for $1,00 a month. What you’re going to do is you’re going to tell your boss: “No, I’m not doing this because it’s not acceptable and I have $1,000 dollars that I can use for the next two months until I find a better job.” So if you want that job done as a boss, you’re going to have to improve the conditions or the pay.”

Q: Thinking about the challenges in the Bay Area, do you see UBI as something that could play a role in addressing housing and homelessness?

A: Well, homelessness is a very big deal here. I think a number of people become homeless because they can’t afford the rents. And those people who are janitors or policemen or nurses who we need in the city, if they have to commute for 2.5 hours one way that’s five hours of stress. And we need them! If the janitors didn’t come for two weeks Google would have to close down. That has value. It goes back to the philosophical underpinning of the UBI: The idea that we all contribute. And with $1,000 extra a month maybe they can move closer to their jobs.

Q: Finally, what do you think Gerald would say if he could see the momentum around UBI right now?  

A: He would be…shocked. He would be amazed. [Voice cracking.] I can’t put words to what his reaction would be to what i’m doing. He would be flabbergasted. I’m flabbergasted.

Gisele Huff

Title: President of the Gerald Huff Fund for Humanity
Age: 84
Residence: San Francisco
Education: Undergraduate at Hunter College and Columbia University, where she graduated with a PhD in political science.
Past positions: Director of development at San Francisco University High School and executive director for the Jaquelin Hume Foundation.

Five things to know about Gisele Huff

She was born in Paris, France.
She is Jewish, and 18 of her relatives were killed in concentration camps during World War 2. Huff and her mother survived by going went into hiding in the South of France. They adopted fake names and her mother sold produce and eggs on the black market.
She is always the first person on the dance floor.
She is a foodie and loves “unusual combinations of flavors.” One of her favorite recent dishes was duck confit with lentils.
She changed political parties had a political transformation after the 2008 recession.

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