A little while ago, when Harry discussed the latest addition to the Real Utopias Project on basic income and stakeholding, some commentators raised the issue of the gender effects. I promised at that time that I would write a post about it. Well, finallly the time has come—thanks to a workshop on this topic that the Heinrich Boell Foundation organised last Thursday in Berlin. They are the think-thank of the Green German Party, which is currently seriously debating whether they should advocate a basic income as (part of) a welfare state reform strategy. The workshop addressed the question whether a basic income would have different implications for women and men, and whether, all things considered, it would be a policy reform that feminists may want to support.
Writing my paper for that workshop, I noted that while I was already somewhat critical about the desirability of a basic income from a feminist perspective some years ago, my worries have only grown. There’s only one group of women for whom basic income will clearly be a short-term advantage – women who would not (want to) be on the labour market, with or without a basic income. But for other groups of women the total income and labour supply effects are unclear and hard to predict. Our best guesses are that most women would want to be employed for fewer hours – but that requires the availability of part-time jobs. Similar non-earned income policies in Europe, such as paid parental leave, time credits, or paid care leaves, are predominantly used by women, not by men. So based on these closest resembling existing policies, we would predict a strenghtening of the traditional gender divison of labour, with all the disadvantages and risks that this brings to the person doing the unpaid work. A basic income may soften the financial part of these disadvantages and risks, but since feasibility and sustainability constraints limit the level of the highest possible sustainable basic income, a basic income cannot cover all these risks. Moreover, a basic income does nothing to change the fact that many (most?) women want to share care and unpaid work, independent of the financial consequences.
Feminists come in many colours, but one major group argues for a revaluating and redistribution of care and unpaid work. A basic income will not contribute to the redistribution, if anything rather the opposite. But I’ve also increasingly come to question whether it will contribute to any serious revaluation of care and unpaid work. Since a basic income is given to all citizens, including those who do not make any positive contribution to society, how can it signal a positive revaluation for care work? If it is given to a 18-year old school drop out watching videos all day on the same terms as to a full time carer, how can it signal that society appreciates the work that this carer does? Or take the case of a hardworking professional whose relative becomes seriously ill, and he (temporarily) quits his job to become a full-time carer. His income will drop from the level of the basic income plus the net income from employment to the basic income level; he is in no way being compensated for the fact that he becomes a carer for this ill relative. So I am rather sceptical about the often taken-for-granted argument in the basic income literature that a basic income will contribute to a revaluation of carework.
But there are more feminist worries. One is the question about priorities: as Barbara Bergmann has argued in her Chapter for Erik Olin Wright’s book, a sizeable basic income will take such a large share of GDP that there will be no public funds left for important goods such as public schools, physical and mental health care, child and elderly care arrangements, and so forth. There are many papers written both by academics and politicians arguing that we should have a basic income and a range of other public provisionings, but hardly ever does one see the question raised whether all this can be paid for by the public budget. I was told in Berlin that the proposal that the Greens are debating (a basic income at the “socio-cultural existence minimum”), would amount to 50% of GDP. Since Germany has very limited facilities for child care, and (to the best of my knowledge) free public education only starts at the age of 6 (compared to, for example, 4 in the Netherlands or 2,5 in Belgium), I think German feminists would do well to put their priorities in expanding these facilities.
The basic income proposal is often praised since it would remove the unemployment trap, because it makes the differential between working and not-working significantly positive (in contrast to current systems of unemployment benefits where the net-difference of working may be small and thus the financial incentives of moving from unemployment to a job would be weak). But there is a risk that the solving of the unemployment trap goes hand in hand with the creation of another trap. Basic income is often said to respect the choices of parents (read: mothers) to choose whether to use public child care facilities or care for their children themselves. But if a basic income is introduced together with a reform of the tax rates from progressive taxation on labour to a flat tax rate, and with the abolition of child care subsidies, then a basic income is likely to put mothers into a child care trap. The monthly cost of a full-time child care place in the Netherlands is over 1.000 Euro; so the basic income for children will not cover that cost. This is of course as much a problem for current welfare states – High quality child care is expensive and therefore has to be subsidised if we want there to be an financial incentive for mothers to take a job, or put differently, to offer them a genuine opportunity to hold a job. But since the basic income proposal is often defended in terms of enabling real choice, this seems to me a crucial issue which basic income advocates should pay attention to (and as far as I could tell, there is nothing about this in the basic income literature).
So should feminists support basic income? Even if they think basic income is a good idea on other grounds (as a anti-poverty strategy, for example), the effects on gender relations and women’s position in society would to a large extent depend on the details of the proposal, such as the level of the basic income for adults and children, the quality and net cost of child and elderly care facilities, the reform of the tax sytem, and so forth. As a utopia basic income may sound good to women, but as is often the case, the devil is in the details.