The introduction of an unconditional basic income (UBI) is often touted as a positive step in terms of freedom, well-being and social justice. That’s certainly the view of people like Philippe Van Parijs and Karl Widerquist, both of whose arguments for the UBI I covered in my two most recent posts. But could there be other less progressive effects arising from its introduction? Over the next two posts, I want to look at some feminist perspectives on the basic income. As we shall see from this investigation, although there are reasons for feminists to welcome the introduction a UBI, there are also reasons for concern.
In this post, I’ll try to do three things. First, I’ll look at the possible effects of the UBI on women, both at an individual and societal level. Second, I’ll look at four arguments in favour of a UBI from a feminist perspective. And third, I’ll look at two arguments against a UBI from a feminist perspective. I’ll be basing this discussion on two main sources: Ingrid Robeyns’s “A Gender Analysis of Basic Income” and Tony Fitzpatrick’s “A Basic Income for Feminists?”. Both of these appear as chapters in the book Basic Income: An Anthology of Contemporary Research.
Before I begin, a word or two about terminology. It is, of course, deeply misleading to suggest that there is or could be a single, univocal “feminist perspective” on this topic. This is for the simple reason that the feminist movement is far too diverse and multi-faceted to warrant such a claim. Classically, the liberal feminist project was concerned with “adding women in” to the legal and economic rights and privileges enjoyed by men. The goals of this project included things like granting women the right to vote, the right to own property, to enter into contracts, as well as the capacity to seek and retain paid employment. For a variety of reasons, this liberal project has been deemed inadequate. Perhaps the main reason being that it normalises women as men, thereby perpetuating patriarchal beliefs and practices. As a result, alternative goals have been articulated and pursued by different feminist groups. These would include things like creating a completely gender neutral (or maybe even post-gender) society, though the precise form that would take, and the correct means for achieving it, is debatable.
This is important when it comes to assessing the arguments discussed below. One of the main features of the feminist debate over the UBI is the concern it has for the effect of the grant on the forms of unpaid care work that women have traditionally performed in the home, and on their likely participation in the labour market. Thus, the feminist value placed those things is key to working out what “the” feminist perspective (or, rather, perspectives) on the basic income should be.
1. What are the possible effects of the UBI for women?
Ingrid Robeyns helpfully breaks the likely effects of the UBI on women down into two categories: (i) first order effects; and (ii) second order effects. First order effects are direct effects that take place in the short term. They are usually easier to identify and will tend to have a direct impact on the individual receiving the income grant. Second order effects are long-term and more indirect. They will include the impact of the UBI on societal attitudes toward women and unpaid work.
Robeyns identifies three possible first order effects of a basic income. They are:
It may (slightly) reduce women’s labour market participation: It is well-known that women are less likely to participate in the labour market than men. Historically, this was because they weren’t allowed to do so. Nowadays it is because it is still expected and accepted that they will perform unpaid work in the home. Studies (cited by Robeyns) have have shown that women’s participation in the labour market is positively affected by education and net wage, and negatively affected by age, number of children and income of spouse or partner. Men’s labour market participation is largely unaffected by these things (indeed, men seem seek paid work no matter what). Robeyns cites two studies (both based on models, not real data) on the likely effect of a UBI on female labour market participation. Both studies suggest that women’s participation would decrease with the introduction of a UBI, with estimates for that reduction varying from 9% to 20%. It is very difficult to know what would happen in reality, and Robeyn’s suggests that actual social experiments would help. Her article was written in the early 2000s. I’m not sure if any such experiments have been performed since. I know Brazil has attempted welfare reforms along these lines. Does anyone know of studies emanating from this?
It would have a variable impact on the actual amount of income received by women: Women who received no income prior to the introduction of the UBI would see their incomes increase, but the effect on other women is unclear. Women who engage in paid work are on average paid less than men, so the method of financing would be critical. If the UBI was financed by a flat tax, for instance, instead of a progressive tax, then those women who work may see their net incomes go down. This would depend on what they were earning and the actual amount of the UBI. Robeyns suggests that single mothers are likely to be the major financial beneficiaries of the UBI.
It would increase the flexibility of work choices for women: Assuming the grant was of a sufficient level, one major impact of the UBI would be the choice and flexibility it would offer many women (again, particularly, single mothers). They would no longer be forced to work to meet basic needs, and could more easily drop in and out of paid employment.
So much for the first order effects, what about the second order ones? Robeyns mentions seven. (I should say it’s not entirely clear to me why some of these are deemed second-order effects since they could also have an impact in the short term. I guess, however, that the line between first and second order effects is pretty blurry.)
It could lead to a re-valuation of unpaid and care work: At the moment, the kinds of unpaid and care work that women have traditionally engaged in are undervalued and under-appreciated in society. Paid employment and the moralisation of paid work have taken care of that. By decoupling work from income, one hope for the UBI would be that it would lead to the revaluation of unpaid and care work. This is, however, open to doubt.
If it is also paid to children, it could have a beneficial impact on mothers: If children are also recipients of a basic income (perhaps at a reduced rate), mothers are likely to benefit. First, by having their care work recognised and rewarded. Second, by weakening the poverty trap experienced by many single parent families. (I don’t fully follow this point from Robeyns. The assumption seems to be that parents will control the income granted to their child, which is a fair assumption, but it makes me wonder how this differs from childcare allowances that are granted in many European countries.)
It could have a positive psychological effect on housewives: It would give them a feeling of contributing to the incomes of their families, and would grant them a recognition for the value of their work. Robeyns cites studies from the UK on the positive psychological impact of child allowances on mothers in support of this.
It could improve women’s bargaining position within the home: Amartya Sen argues that households should be viewed as cooperative conflicts. The people within them typically cooperate for gains, but those gains are not distributed equally. Oftentimes women are the losers. By increasing women’s financial independence (thereby granting them an improved exit option), the UBI could help to improve their bargaining position in the home.
It could cause women to lose the non-pecuniary advantages of paid labour: Paid employment has benefits beyond the income received. It gives one access to certain social networks, allows one to demonstrate competence, and can increase one’s feeling of self-respect. If the UBI causes more women to drop out of the labour market, they could lose some of those advantages.
It could depreciate women’s “human capital” and reduce their income in the long-term: Studies have shown that those who drop out of paid employment, even if only temporarily, often struggle to re-enter the labour market and secure better paid jobs. Again, if the UBI causes more women to temporarily drop out of the labour market, it could add to this struggle.
It could actually increase statistical/implicit discrimination against women: Implicit biases arise whenever people form subconscious associations between groups of people and certain properties that are stereotypically applied to members of those groups. For example, in the US there is often an implicit association between African-American males and criminal activity. This can affect how people behave toward members of those groups, even if there is no evidence to suggest that an individual fits that stereotype. Robeyns suggests that the UBI could exacerbate certain implicit biases against women in the employment sphere. For example, by incentivising some women to drop out of paid employment, or take more career breaks, it could bolster the association between female employees and lower productivity that many employers are likely to have. This could then impact negatively on individual women, even if they are not inclined to drop out of paid employment.
These are all the first and second order effects mentioned by Robeyns. As you can see, they are something of a mixed bag. Some suggest positive outcomes for women; some suggest negative. They are also all somewhat speculative. Since no country has implemented a UBI on the scale advocated by most activists, we don’t have the data to say for sure whether these effects will materialise.
2. Four Feminist Arguments in Favour of the UBI
With these potential effects in mind, we can now turn our attention to some feminist arguments for and against the UBI. At this point, I draw more upon the work of Tony Fitzpatrick than that of Robeyns, although Robeyns makes very similar arguments. We’ll start by looking at four arguments in favour of the UBI.
The first argument holds that feminists should embrace the UBI because it will enhance female independence. The possible mechanisms for this were mentioned above. If women have an income sufficient for the necessities of life, then they have more flexibility in terms of labour market participation and more bargaining power within the traditional family structure. Furthermore, because the UBI is unconditional and individualised, they are not tied to a particular family structure, nor do they have to prove willingness to seek paid work or former participation in paid work. This represents an improvement over the existing system of welfare payments, which is often highly conditional and demanding of such proof.
The second argument holds that feminists should embrace the UBI because of its potential to reduce the sexual division of labour. The traditional division of labour is that of the male breadwinner and the female caregiver. If UBI has the potential to raise the status of non-waged work, then it could also, potentially, encourage more men to engage in that type of work. This might allow for some de-gendering of work roles. The mechanisms for this are likely to be indirect. The UBI wouldn’t actively reward unpaid work, it would simply make it a more viable option. I’ll be talking about this more in part two.
The third argument holds that feminists should embrace the UBI because it could reduce existing labour market segregation. This is essentially just the flip-side of the previous argument. One of the problems with the sexual division of labour is that it impairs women’s access to paid employment. If women are forced, demanded or expected to engage in unpaid work within the home — and if men are not — then the opportunities for women to access paid employment are limited. So if the UBI can reduce the sexual division of labour, it could also increase the access to paid employment. This would also represent an improvement over existing welfare systems where entitlements are dependent on total household income. In support of this, Fitzpatrick gives the example of systems in which the benefits payable to an unemployed man are actually reduced if his spouse/partner is working. This can encourage women in low-pay work to give up that work.
The fourth argument holds that feminists should embrace the UBI because it will reduce the burden placed upon women by the welfare state. The idea here is that women are often the chief “victims” of the bureaucracy of the traditional welfare system. Due to social panics about “welfare queens” and the like, women often experience intrusive means-testing and enquiries into their personal lives in order to prove eligibility for welfare. The unconditional nature of the basic income cuts out those intrusions.
I think there is something to each of these arguments, though some are more aspirational and hypothetical than others. I would make three observations about them for now. First, notice how they appeal to different feminist goals, including the goal of de-gendering of work roles, as well as the classic liberal goal of increasing female participation in paid work. Second, they tend to assume a fairly traditional heterosexual family structure, which some would challenge. Third, when they are being aspirational they probably tend to assume, too readily, that income itself will breakdown sexist norms and biases about unpaid work. That is a dubious assumption.
3. Two Feminist Arguments Against the UBI
Now we’ll look at two feminist arguments against the UBI. Again, these come from the work of Tony Fitzpatrick.
The first argument picks up from the observation I just made. It holds that proponents of the UBI focus on the value of decommodification and ignore the need for defamilialisation. Decommodification is the process whereby that which typically has a price or market value attached to it is denuded of that value. Consequently, it becomes something that can no longer be traded on an open market. This is one thing that the UBI can do to human labour (i.e. it can de-link labour from income). Decommodification is seen as a worthwhile goal by many left-leaning feminists, but also an insufficient one. The reason being that traditional forms of female labour have always been decommodified. That is why they are unpaid. The problem with that type of work — and with the position of women more generally — is that it is familialised. In other words, it is linked to a particular role within a family structure. Women are then dependent on occupying that role, which is what gives rise to the traditional sexual division of labour (male breadwinner; female caregiver). The goal for a feminist social policy should be to de-familialise women’s social position. The concern is that the UBI may not be able to do this. In fact, it may serve to entrench the sexual division of labour. This is because if women no longer need to work out of economic necessity, they may succumb to social pressures to take up the traditional caregiver role. Men could then continue to free-ride on the unpaid work of women; and women could be further excluded from the labour market.
The second argument is slightly more straightforward. It is simply that the UBI is too blunt a tool. One worry people have had about the classic forms of feminism is their tendency to essentialise or homogenise the experiences of different groups of women. This can be unhelpful. After all, the experiences of a well-educated upper class woman are arguably quite different from those of an under-educated lower class woman. The problem with the UBI is that it treats all these women in the same way. It pays them all the same income. If it is likely that some women will exit the labour market and take up the traditional familial roles as a result of the UBI, is it not possible that those women are more likely to be drawn from lower class and/or ethnic minorities? Particularly given that those women have lower participation anyway, and are more likely to experience direct and indirect forms of discrimination?
Okay, so that is a very general introduction to feminism and the basic income. Hopefully, you now have a sense of the different arguments and assumptions that permeate this debate. In part two, I’ll make some more specific points about models of welfare and how they correspond to feminist goals, and I’ll look the role that feminism could play in social and political debates about the basic income.