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Has the United States just taken a step toward a universal basic income?


That's an interesting question as the federal government begins putting deposits in the bank accounts of millions of Americans this week. These monthly payments are child tax credits for families with kids. They're part of the COVID relief bill passed earlier this year. And because they're structured as monthly payments, not as an annual tax break, experts say they resemble a universal basic income, the idea that almost everyone gets a basic payment for living expenses. And the treasury secretary says she wants to keep them going permanently.

INSKEEP: Janet Yellen spoke with Noel King. Noel, good morning.


INSKEEP: So I should note I have kids, so I got this letter from the IRS, signed by Joe Biden. I got a letter from Joe Biden, as I guess millions of people did, says my family gets this monthly payment, a few bucks a month. But for people making around the poverty line, it's a larger payment, a meaningful amount of money. How much does this cost for millions of people?

KING: Congress did the math on it, and this year, the tax credit will cost about $105 billion. Now, if it becomes permanent, it would mean $105 billion or so every year. But Yellen calls this a moral imperative despite the expense.

Right now, the child tax credit is a temporary program. Do you think it should become permanent?

JANET YELLEN: Yes, I do. I think it's a very important program that will do a huge amount to relieve child poverty, which has been a tremendously important problem in the United States. So I think this is something that's very important to continue.

KING: But that - will that really happen permanently? Senate Democrats included an extension in their $3.5 trillion budget plan, but they haven't decided how long the extension will be. And they have not said the word permanent.

INSKEEP: There are some remarkable statistics associated with this child tax credit. Millions of people whose families are below the poverty line flip over the poverty line, technically leave poverty just because of this this payment. But how would the government pay for that?

KING: Taxes, taxes. Secretary Yellen told me the U.S. needs to raise its corporate tax rate, which we've heard a lot of, and to get other countries to agree to a global minimum corporate tax rate so that American companies do not just bounce for tax havens, as they've been doing. An agreement with around 135 other countries is in the works right now. But also, Steve, there are a lot of Americans and American companies that are not paying the taxes they owe. And so she wants to give the IRS $80 billion over the next 10 years to find tax dodgers.

YELLEN: We have an enormous tax gap. By that, I mean the difference between the amount that the Internal Revenue Service actually collects and what it estimates it's really due if all taxpayers, companies and individuals, were paying what they owe under our laws. And it's estimated that over the next decade, that will amount to $7 trillion dollars.

KING: Which is a lot of money. Now, she also said the president's promise that families making under $400,000 a year will not see their taxes go up is, quote, "ironclad."

INSKEEP: Now, Noel, I guess if you're chatting with someone who's the treasury secretary, part of the president's economic team and also used to be the chair of the Federal Reserve, you can't get out of that conversation without asking about inflation, which some people are worried about.

KING: No, nor would you want to. So I asked about inflation. And Secretary Yellen said the same thing we've heard from the Federal Reserve. Inflation is happening now because the economy is up and running again after what was an unprecedented shutdown.

YELLEN: It's very difficult to reopen an economy that's been shut down. And as vaccinations has increased and people are able to go back to a more normal way of living, spending has increased very, very rapidly. And that's leading to a situation where there are bottlenecks and a difficulty in expanding the supply of some goods and services rapidly enough to meet surging demand.

KING: So she said this is temporary, although she couldn't quite put her finger on what temporary means.

INSKEEP: Noel, thanks for your work on this.

KING: For sure.

INSKEEP: That's Noel King.


INSKEEP: How did a group of assassins manage to reach Haiti's president so easily?

PFEIFFER: That's one of the unanswered questions in the investigation of the death of Jovenel Moise. None of his security detail was injured in the attack, and there's no evidence they resisted the invaders. Last night, the head of Haiti's national police said the former chief of Moise's security detail has been placed in isolated detention and will be further questioned about his actions the night of the president's murder.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jason Beaubien is following the investigation in Port-au-Prince. Hey there, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

INSKEEP: What are you learning?

BEAUBIEN: So investigators are basically trying to go with the bigger picture here in this investigation. They're expanding beyond these two dozen or so Colombian mercenaries who were at the scene the night President Moise was killed. And they're looking at who hired them, who let them into the presidential palace, if indeed it was the Colombians who were the first ones there. Some of them have claimed that the president was already dead when they stormed the private residence.

At this press conference that you mentioned last night, Leon Charles, the director of the Haitian National Police - he said the former head of the president's security detail, Dimitri Herard, has essentially been arrested. He also - there's some details that have been coming out saying that Herard had transited through Bogota, Colombia, six times last year while traveling to other countries. The Colombian defense minister has come in and said that some of the men who were there knew about the plan to kill Moise, but others had been duped into thinking they were there to detain him. So more details of the bigger picture are starting to emerge here.

INSKEEP: I'm just thinking this through. You've got the Colombians who allegedly were brought in for the assassination. You've got the security detail suspected of some kind of complicity. But what about the mastermind of this whole thing?

BEAUBIEN: And it's - we just at this point still don't know exactly who the mastermind was. There's an interesting report that The Washington Post - a profile of Christian Emmanuel Sanon saying that he's one of the people who is in custody. It's been alleged that he hired the mercenaries. They say in The Post that he sought funding for a project that included hiring those guys and, quote, "turning Haiti into a free and open society." You know, so far, all Haitian officials will say is that Sanan is under arrest because some of the suspects called him on the night of that attack.

INSKEEP: What are you hearing as you continue to talk with Haitians on the streets?

BEAUBIEN: The big issue is security. You know, if the president can be killed in his fortified home, what is it like for everyone else? And people are feeling - they've been feeling that security was a terrible situation before. Now it's even worse. I talked to Anderson Laferriere (ph). He runs a business marketing locally grown beans and rice and specialty oils. He says at times, he can't even get his raw materials from the countryside into Port-au-Prince because gangs are seizing them. Gangs are stopping the road. And what the big issue - is just the security of himself and his employees. And he told me that ordinary Haitians have no one to call.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jason Beaubien is in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. Jason, thanks so much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.


INSKEEP: South Africa has had one of its most violent weeks since the end of apartheid.

PFEIFFER: More than 100 people have been killed and more than 1,000 arrested during riots and looting in two of the country's biggest cities.

INSKEEP: Let's figure out the story behind those numbers. NPR's Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta just arrived at his new base, Cape Town, South Africa. Eyder, good morning.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Well-timed move to a different part of the continent. What sparked the violence there?

PERALTA: Yeah. So look. South Africa has been going through a long-running legal battle with its ex-president Jacob Zuma. And Zuma is this charismatic, beloved, populist liberation hero who has also been accused of massive corruption. And the country set up this commission to look into the allegations. And way back in 2018, they called on Zuma to testify, and he has refused. And last week, a court finally ordered his arrest for being in contempt of court. South Africa is a fairly new democracy, and this was a huge post-apartheid test on whether big, powerful men like former President Jacob Zuma could be held to account. Zuma said this was a political witch hunt and that putting him in jail during a pandemic was a death sentence. And his supporters went out to the streets.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk that through. So you've got this populist president who's accused of being very corrupt, of abusing his power, but he's got a certain devoted following. And how did they turn to violence?

PERALTA: I mean, so they got - they sort of got out of control. And whole malls have been looted. Shopkeepers have been killed in these confrontations. People have been killed in stampedes. And the government has hinted that this violence was orchestrated by their political adversaries. You can read Jacob Zuma, the former president. But this is also coming at a tough time in South Africa. The country has been hit hard by COVID. And right now, we're at the peak of a third wave and in the middle of another lockdown. There is massive youth unemployment. And this was already one of the most unequal countries in the world.

So sure, you know, this could be orchestrated, politically orchestrated. But there's also South Africans from all walks of life taking part in this looting. They're stealing everything from pigs to diapers to big-screen TVs. And the government has now sent the military into the streets to Durban and Johannesburg to calm the situation.

INSKEEP: Is that getting things back under control?

PERALTA: Things are looking a little more normal. Highways are open. Looters are off the street. But look. The truth is that all of the problems that ail South Africa are still here. I spoke to Dr. Mathews Phosa (ph), an influential member of the ruling party. And he says yes, this is about whether South African institutions can hold a powerful man to account. But it's also a moment where the government can look inward. Let's listen.

MATHEWS PHOSA: I think it's a moment of big reckoning. This republic must understand that it is for good institutions. But at the same time, people don't eat institutions. We need economic growth in this country.

PERALTA: If people are hungry, he says, they are also angry. And that means that they are vulnerable to influence from politicians and other powerful people.

INSKEEP: I just want to repeat that one line that he said. People don't eat institutions, meaning democracy is fine, but the government also has to deliver. I guess.

PERALTA: People need to be comfortable in their life. And right now in South Africa, they are - they're suffering terribly.

INSKEEP: Eyder, thanks so much for your reporting, as always.

PERALTA: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Eyder Peralta is in Cape Town, South Africa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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