Feminism and Basic Income Revisited

by Ingrid Robeyns on February 2, 2009

We’ve had some discussions on the desirability of a basic income from a feminist perspective here before (“here”:https://crookedtimber.org/2007/02/28/redesigning-distribution/ and “here”:https://crookedtimber.org/2007/07/10/should-feminists-support-basic-income/). So I thought I would mention that about a month ago a special issue of “Basic Income Studies“:http://www.bepress.com/bis/ was published which addresses precisely the question “whether, all things considered, feminists should endorse a basic income.”:http://www.bepress.com/bis/vol3/iss3/ All authors answered this question with (relatively) affluent societies in mind; so the question still need to be answered for developing countries.

I guest-edited this issue and, as I wrote in “the introduction”:http://www.bepress.com/bis/vol3/iss3/art3/ (which also summarises the papers), apart from Barbara Bergmann’s contribution, I genuinely did not know what the other contributors (John Baker, Anca Gheaus, Jacqueline O’Reilly, Almaz Zelleke, and Julieta Elgarte) would argue. So although these authors are all either feminists or generally supportive of feminist views, I was truly surprised to find out that they strongly disagreed on the desirability of a basic income for feminists. On the one hand this is due to the different kinds of feminism which they endorse. Bergmann is a ‘Total Androgyny, Male Style’- type of feminist, whereas Baker and Zelleke, for example, are much more concerned about the short-term interests of carers and those who do not want to or cannot take on large paid jobs, which are often mothers and female carers. Yet the other source of disagreement is the predicted effects of a basic income on the gendered division of labour. Gheaus thinks it will become more unequal (a view I share based on an empirical literature survey of similar policy instruments or financial changes, which I did as a graduate student). Elgarte thinks we need to make policy space for an ‘avantgarde’ who is practicing a more egalitarian gender division of labour while at the same time protecting those who are living in more gendertraditional households, whereas Zelleke doesn’t think the gender division of labour will worsen if a basic income would be implemented.

How is all this possible? The answer, I think, lies in the fact that these papers argue at a high level of generality and without specifying what the level of the basic income will be and what other elements of the welfare state (public goods, merit goods, etc.) will be kept and/or implemented. Of course, this critique is not true for Bergmann, who has done some interesting calculations and argues that if we have a Swedish-style welfare state with targeted transfers and subsidized public and merit goods, there is no fiscal room left to increase taxation rates for a basic income; and it is also not entirely true for O’Reilly, who compares existing social policies aiming at gender equality, and concludes that she is sceptical about what a basic income can do better.

So my conclusion? “…the main merit of this debate in Basic Income Studies is that it provides evidence of the consolidation of the conflicting feminist views about basic income proposals when analysed at a general level. Therefore, I believe that it is time to move to a second stage of feminist analyses that needs to focus more on the details of the entire package deal of a basic income society, in an empirically grounded fashion.” (introduction, p. 5)

“Basic Income Studies”:http://www.bepress.com/bis/ is one of those wonderful Open Access Journals, so anybody interested can read it all “here”:http://www.bepress.com/bis/vol3/iss3/.



bob mcmanus 02.02.09 at 9:10 pm

I don’t know if this is trolling, but This is a paper about job guarantees/ELR with an empirical analysis of the recent Argentinian jefes program. Pavlina Tcherneva and L. Randall Wray at the Levy Economics Institute.

And the program allows them to do just that—help the community. A large number of projects are designed specifically to cater to community needs by providing a wide range of goods and services. As Figure 10 shows, 87% of Jefes beneficiaries work in community projects. These include primarily agricultural microenterprises and various social and community services (Figure 11). Some specific examples include cleaning and environmental support in the agricultural sector, and improving the sewer systems and water drainages. Much of the community work is performed in local community centers, thus renovation of existing centers or construction of new ones represent many small Jefes infrastructure projects. Examples of community services performed in these centers include food kitchens or family attention centers which address domestic violence issues or provide temporary shelter and other services to abused women or children. Other projects include health promotion programs that offer basic education on sanitary issues—how to boil water, for example, or how to handle food and avoid dysentery and other infections. Others deal with mending old clothes that have been donated to poor communities. A similar program exists for the public libraries, where scrapped books from wealthier regions are repaired and cataloged for public libraries in poorer

Here is a more theoretical macro paper comparing Basic Income Guarantee to Job Guarantee/ELR proposals. Again by Tcherneva at Levy.


bob mcmanus 02.02.09 at 9:11 pm

paragraph 2 was supposed to blockquoted. Sorry


Chris Bertram 02.02.09 at 10:19 pm

Is Zoe Fairbairns’s novel _Benefits_ still in print? It must be 30 years since I read it, but I think it is centred around just this issue.


Kathleen 02.02.09 at 11:59 pm

It seems to me that this discussion might benefit from a dialogue with disability scholars/activists — maybe this has already happened in the pages of BIS? Because SSDI payments show that providing basic income doesn’t really solve problems of social inclusion, which I think are probably at the heart of feminist concerns about basic income worsening the gendered division of labour, too.

The basic income question immediately raises questions about how social welfare policies should be designed generally: with collectively transformative social ends in mind, or just as economic-equity-increasing payments to individuals to use within the framework of life as they are already know it (which might mean — in the case of some women — subsidizing existing gender dynamics, or — in the case of some people with disabilities — subsidizing an isolated existence as the workplace is one of the main places people in our society connect)?

Which element you


derrida derider 02.03.09 at 12:16 am

As both a longterm BI supporter and a professional designer of welfare programs, I think a true BI should be a no-brainer for feminists. Because of the strict individual entitlement it is neutral with regard to living arrangements, including marriage. The flat tax means that it doesn’t matter whether households are single, dual or multiple earners – the tax rate is exactly the same – so compared with graduated tax scales it encourages working by all members of a household, including wives.

In fact the lack of economic support for traditional gender roles is the main reason social conservatives hate the idea of a BI.


Clay Shirky 02.03.09 at 12:32 am

I think you left Almaz Zelleke out of the parenthetical list of authors in graf two (though you refer to her work later.)


Ingrid Robeyns 02.03.09 at 8:00 am

Clay Shirky: thanks! Bad from me, though these slips happen more often when writing a post later in the evening after a long work day. In any case. it’s corrected.


StevenAttewell 02.03.09 at 8:17 am

Given that women tend to be disproportionately represented in the ranks of the poor (70% of the world’s poor are women and children) wouldn’t a program designed to alleviate poverty be ipso facto a feminist policy, in the sense that it counter-acts the discriminatory burden of gendered poverty?

What am I missing here?


John Quiggin 02.03.09 at 10:29 am

The disability question points up a more general problem with the BI idea, namely a focus on money income as the crucial determinant of capabilities. That’s important, but not as important as a lot of BI advocates, particularly those influenced by Friedman and the negative income tax idea, tend to suppose. I think Kathleen’s comment may have been going in that direction before it got cut off.


Zamfir 02.03.09 at 1:11 pm

Kathleen, I am also interested in your disability view. I always thought that one of the theoretical advatages of a basic income was that it would allow people with disabilities, or otherwise limitations on their economic productivity, to still get a job with a small but positive income, and thus to participate more in society. While the current systems often makes people lose benefits fast, so they effectively have to pay to have a job.

But apparently it doesn’t work that way in practice?


Kathleen 02.03.09 at 3:50 pm

John — thanks for your generous interpretation of my abbreviated comment; I actually thought I’d deleted the last bit because I realized I wasn’t going to be able to quickly clarify what I meant. But you managed to do so, thanks!

Zamfir — sure, hypothetically BI would be job-neutral for women, people with disabilities, whoever. (Unlike SSDI, which — you are correct — gets clawed back should you start earning more than a very minimum income).

But what I meant was something more along the lines of, “given hypothetical big pot of money X, how should it be spent?” One way to spend it would be to distribute it as BI, directly to individuals. I think there are good things to be said in favor of this. But given that we live in cities, in nuclear families, in high-rise apartments, etc. etc., not villages with weekly community fairs, the problem with this is that one of the major ways people in our society connect with others is via their jobs. This is what I meant about social inclusion — you might think, hey, I’ve got nothing against people with disabilities and they should get BI so they can have an apartment etc. But the fact is, if there are barriers to their participation in the workforce — and there are — BI solves only their financial problems, not their social ones. So I think at least part of that hypothetical big pot of money should go to collective answers, not individual payouts: promoting inclusive workplaces (for people with mild disabilities) and creating “make-work” workshops for people with severe disabilities. Everybody deserves enough income to live on, sure, but in my ideal society I also want to create ways for people to get out of the house and meet other people, too. Everyone could opt out, but based on what I know I think few people would do so.

(some of this applies to women — making it easier for women to be stay at home moms is great in one way, but since at least the Feminine Mystique it’s been clear that it can be isolating and soul-destroying, too)


LF 02.03.09 at 4:35 pm

In Germany, the Hartz IV reforms include provisions for allowing recipients of welfare to work a limited amount of hours without losing their benefits. It’s a step toward BI, although some of its features are badly implemented at present. Some politicians deride the program as being “socialist…” but then they’ll vote for requiring employers to contribute toward healthcare and other such ‘benefits,’ which is even more socialist! Go figure.

Here’s what a Hartz IV monthly payment looks like. If a person loses employment, he gets from the state (i.e. other taxpayers):
250€ – rent for small flat
250€ – health care fund
200€ – food
100€ – misc

Colloquially, it’s called the 800€ economy, and it’s a term often used to reference the unemployment situation. And with heavy mandates placed on employers, to provide cradle-to-grave everything, it’s no wonder there is such high unemployment.

In its ideal form, BI is good because it can include features such as healthcare, thereby decoupling it from the employment relationship, permanently and completely. I find this very desirable. After all, why should your employer be involved in something so personal as your health?!

It also offers you a lot of flexibility in switching jobs or deciding to work part-time instead of full. Unemployment insurance can also be nixed from the employers’ side, since BI inherently provides that function. Of course, supplementary private unemployment insurance is always an option.

Seeing this issue debated within the context of “feminism” is rather puzzling to me. Are we suddenly back in the 1960’s again?? Geez, even Sweden (and Finland) is turning away from such ideology-based politicizing. The age of the dictator seems to be over for now (at least in those countries).


Patrick S. O'Donnell 02.03.09 at 5:51 pm

As one of my teachers reminded us, “the guarantee of income or material goods cannot guarantee anything [let alone everything] else that we may desire.” But that is hardly sufficient reason for feminists or others not to endorse the BI idea as such, which appears to make a decisive step in the direction of more egalitarian social structures and thus can be justified in the terms of both equality and freedom, even if such social structures have more difficulty in meeting our criteria for human growth and fulfillment along the dimensions, say, of human excellence or human solidarity (in the workplace or elsewhere). The potential for the BI to alter our attitudes toward work (which might, for instance, become more creative rather than burdensome) or even toward material ends as such, seems rather compelling. Perhaps the sort of “inner freedom” awakened thereby will serve to contribute to social solidarity, as individuals and families will be loosened from the iron grip of “making it.” And we should not let our personal experiences unduly circumscribe our imagination with regard to the possible long-term effects of instituting such a proposal.

The BI would appear to have far reaching implications for and effects on the current division of labor; social differentiation; occupational ranking; social distribution of income and property (in short, economic power); social stratification and mobility; as well as perhaps status seeking. There is much to recommend it, but it seems dangerous or foolish to invest too many of our hopes and dreams, visions and ideals, in this one proposal, even if it is, all things considered rather radical or revolutionary vis-a-vis the status quo.


leederick 02.03.09 at 8:56 pm

“The flat tax means that it doesn’t matter whether households are single, dual or multiple earners – the tax rate is exactly the same – so compared with graduated tax scales it encourages working by all members of a household, including wives.”

I don’t really understand this. Surely an individually levied progressive tax encourages working by all members of a household, because secondary workers get to keep more income for every pound earned? Under a flat tax a household with one member earning $40k and the other $0k, and a household with two members both earning $20k are taxed equally (actually, if the jobs are full time it favours the $40k/$0k pairing as that household gets more leisure and opportunity for untaxed non-market work). But under a progressive system the $40k/$0k pairing is taxed more than $20k/$20k ones.


Zamfir 02.04.09 at 10:17 am

Kathleen: “”But the fact is, if there are barriers to their participation in the workforce—and there are—BI solves only their financial problems, not their social ones. So I think at least part of that hypothetical big pot of money should go to collective answers, not individual payouts: promoting inclusive workplaces (for people with mild disabilities) and creating “make-work” workshops for people with severe disabilities.”

Yes, you are absolutely right that a mix of solutions is going to be better than abolishing everything in return for a basic income, as some supporters seem to have in mind. And I really agree on the importance of work, even make-work, to include people in society. But I was wondering whether a basic income would not make this easier, compared to disability- or unemployability-based systems, such as apparently the SSDI in your country.

With a basic income, make-work might be less needed, as you could pay people say 1 or 2 euros an hour without being exploitative, and such an organization might be able to support itself instead of having to rely on grants. It would also smooth the transition from 2 euro “make work” via 4 euro “more or less make work” jobs to real jobs.


Jurgen De Wispelaere 02.04.09 at 12:49 pm

Kathleen’s point on basic income and disability is well-taken. It’s a topic almost entirely neglected by basic income advocates, although it has to be said few disability advocates seem to really know what is going on in the basic income discussion either. I think both groups can learn from each other.

Basic income advocates often talk about how this policy is good for the “vulnerable” or “worst-off” in society either in very general terms or else by only focusing on the most obvious social groups. A focus on what (if anything) basic income could contribute to persons with disabilities would seriously help us understand what happens when apparently simple policies connect with complex social and economic realities. Such an evaluation would very much the sort of approach Ingrid herself puts forward in terms of BI and gender.

But similarly I think those concerned about disability policy should take BI more seriously. I agree with other commentators that genuine access to the labour market is a core concern for disability policy, but one should be careful not to overplay the case in the context where the dominant socio-economic discourse is one of employment activation and duties to undertake (paid) work. Against this background rights easily shift into obligations (and associated penalties), with potentially disastrous impact on the well-being and opportunities of disabled people (isn’t the UK a case in point here?). If anything basic income could provide a welcome “heterodox” antidote to the current way of thinking about social inclusion and work etc.

A minor point: there are really very few people who advocate a BI while getting rid of many other social benefits and supports (especially those targeted to disabled service users). There are many hard choices to make and tricky bottlenecks to resolve, but I venture that even hardcore BI supporters are loathe to dismantle whatever robust supports we have in place …

As one of the editors of the journal that published Ingrid’s special issue I’d very much welcome a contribution on this topic – anyone interested, do get in touch!


Witt 02.04.09 at 11:01 pm

Well, darn. I tried to download your introduction and got an error message saying the file was corrupted and could not be viewed. I was trying to hold off commenting on this until I could actually read some of the article, but at this point I know the thread’s lifespan is limited.

I come at this from an intensely practical level. How does the world work now? The current US welfare system is strongly punitive in a number of ways, some of which disproportionately affect women. Given this, it seems self-evident to me that a guaranteed minimum income would be a step toward greater gender equality.

As I understand it, the concept of a basic income is that everybody qualifies — young, old, disabled, with children, without children, etc. One of the greatest costs to the current system is the immense time and effort in weeding out false positives — people who seem like they should qualify for welfare, but really don’t. This is a reflection of the strong cultural tendency to dividing people into the deserving and undeserving poor. (Again, speaking about the US since that’s all I know.) It is considered better to weed out 9 false negatives (people who should qualify for welfare but don’t) in order to make sure that 1 false positive doesn’t sneak in and get benefits. Recent example: US Dept. of Agriculture threatens to cancel a school-lunch program that was going to all kids in a high-poverty school, under the assumption that most of them were eligible anyway and the cost of feeding the remainder was more than made up for by the savings in not having to administrate the endless paperwork in confirming individual eligibility.

Under a basic income system, the presumption (as I understand it) would be that if you’re poor enough, you qualify. Period. If you’re a woman you don’t have to subject yourself to nosy questions about what men live in your household (except insofar as income is being determined). If you’re a man you don’t have to be a single parent before being allowed to qualify for certain kinds of benefits.

That sounds like a big step forward. The closest the US currently comes to a guaranteed minimum income is the Earned Income Tax Credit, which has the obvious flaw of only being available to people who are working for wages. The EITC enjoys relatively broad-based support and numerous states have made efforts to supplement the federal program. What seems appealing about a basic income is that it goes even further in removing the stigma.

[The flip side of the coin is that I believe very strongly that real-world work experience is good for absolutely everyone, and I have a very low opinion of the sheltered-workshop type programs I have seen in action. Last I heard, Social Security was still limping along trying to implement its Ticket to Work program, a tiny drop-in-the-bucket effort to allow Social Security Disability recipients to continue receiving their modest stipend while also working for pay. So I’d want to see some very clear regulations in place ensuring that people were not being penalized for working.]


Witt 02.04.09 at 11:03 pm

Sorry, clarifying:

false negatives (people who should qualify for welfare but don’t)

should be (people who do qualify for welfare but are mistakenly told they do not)


SamChevre 02.04.09 at 11:09 pm

Under a basic income system, the presumption (as I understand it) would be that if you’re poor enough, you qualify.

All the basic income systems I’m familiar with just propose that everyone gets an income–no “qualifying”.


Witt 02.04.09 at 11:18 pm

All the basic income systems I’m familiar with just propose that everyone gets an income—no “qualifying”.

Wait, what? So I’m making $50,000 a year, but I get the same $18,000 basic income as somebody making $0 per year? That just seems insane.


Watson Aname 02.05.09 at 12:11 am

Wait, what? So I’m making $50,000 a year, but I get the same $18,000 basic income as somebody making $0 per year? That just seems insane.

But you could neutralize it via income tax, and avoid most administrative overhead that way.


Zamfir 02.05.09 at 11:15 am

“Wait, what? So I’m making $50,000 a year, but I get the same $18,000 basic income as somebody making $0 per year? That just seems insane.”

No, that’s actually the feature. An income that would only go to people “poor enough”in some sense, has the big drawback that those people lose their benefits when they start working more or better paid, thus making the net benefit small.

Of course, when your income is high enough, you become a net payer. Instead of a fixed income with relatively high marginal taxes, you could also have a gradually decreasing income and lower taxes, for the same effect. But the “basic income” idea explains a bit easier than marginal tax rates.


dave 02.05.09 at 12:08 pm

Savings in the administrative burden are probably the only argument that would ever swing public opinion in favour of a BI scheme. It is patently obvious to anyone with any grasp of the wide variety of human personalities and motivations that:

a) some people would use their BI to bum around forever;
b) some of these people would produce households with large numbers of children that would
b1) have to be subsidised through their childhood, and
b2) go on to a life of BI-subsidised idleness thereafter; and
c) very large numbers of people who do choose to work for a living would, in the absence of a total cultural revolution, resent the above facts deeply, and probably vote against any system that looked likely to produce such a result.

People who actually live in working communities know that the ‘undeserving poor’ really do exist. Unless you could persuade them, with a watertight case, that BI would cause them to pay LESS in taxes to support such people, you are wasting your time. I imagine that tricks like ensuring BI equalled a ruthless denial of all suplementary systems of support payments; and/or tying criminal convictions to long-term reductions in personal BI entitlements, might also help swing it.


reason 02.05.09 at 2:36 pm

… gender division of labour will worsen

Isn’t there a strong element of “paternalism” (or should that be “parentism”) implied in that phrase? I’m all for allowing people to be treated equally, but if that allows them to choose to behave unequally, then so be it.


reason 02.05.09 at 2:41 pm

it is not at all clear that the net effect would be negative. BI actually reduces the incentive to just bum around, because it ends the poverty trap that arises with means tested benefits. It might also reduce crime and unemployment (because with BI we wouldn’t need minimum wages any more).
And maybe those just “bumming around” would have minimal productivity anyway. Would you want to work WITH them?


dave 02.05.09 at 3:07 pm

But electorates do not make judgments based on economic models. They use the personal economic impact on themselves, as alleged by whichever party decides to sound scarier, plus a whole bunch of judgments about morality and fairness that economics, as I note, is just beginning to try to wrestle with again, after giving up on moral sentiments after Adam Smith.

An economic argument that says, ‘Hey, don’t worry if they don’t work, they wouldn’t be very good at working so we’ll just pay them not to, forever’ has a reeeaaaal big real-world job of self-justification to do, that on its surface it isn’t even trying for.

Besides which, the people who would be the poster-children for political opposition to BI aren’t the ones in a marginal-rates poverty-trap, they’re junkies, drunks, inhabitants of an underground economy already scamming the existing systems who wouldn’t have to bother scamming BI, but could just walk off with taxpayers’ money whistlin’, etc etc. Pick your favourite out-group. How would such a scheme ever get past all that, UNLESS, as I said, you could sell it by claiming that the good workin’ folks would actually be paying all these bozos LESS in the end? And it would still be a hard sell.

I actually think BI isn’t a bad idea, but I find it very difficult to believe a democracy, under present conditions, would vote for it. Honestly, some of the people here seem to think we live in a world run by social workers, not politicians…


reason 02.05.09 at 3:16 pm

There is the possibility that bad enough behaviour would result in “parentalist” intervention as a condition of the BI (especially as the childrens BI is meant to be spent on the children). After all, with all that reduction in burocracy, lots of resources are left over for real social work.-)


reason 02.05.09 at 3:17 pm

(Maybe we wouldn’t be paying the Bozo’s less – but we would be paying less for the Bozo’s).


Watson Aname 02.05.09 at 4:06 pm

People who actually live in working communities know that the ‘undeserving poor’ really do exist.

If they’re paying attention they also know there really aren’t very many of them. This idea is preyed upon by politicians of various stripes, but any time you look into seriously it turns out to be pretty minimal effect (remember welfare cadillacs?). Sure, the `undeserving poor’ can be used as a whipping boy, and often are, but it really doesn’t need to be that way.

I suspect a very clear argument could be presented that even though a few losers are going to take advantage of a pretty marginal lifestyle here without actually producing anything useful — overall everyone is better off not spending the money trying to chase them down and punish them. Just use real numbers, and drop the scare-mongering bullshit.

reason has it about right in 25. I don’t know that all the background work has been done, but if it were done carefully, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see that a fairly clear net win could be established.

More problematic is the large number of jobs that would be made redundant.


dave 02.05.09 at 4:12 pm

Maybe someone should do some opinion polling on this? It would be especially interesting to see results classified by income-bracket, and past or present receipt of state benefits.

Meanwhile, you know that, when it costs well in excess of the median wage to keep someone in prison for a year, the argument that “overall everyone is better off not spending the money trying to chase them down and punish them” is dangerously elastic, don’t you? Economics vs. morality again…


Watson Aname 02.05.09 at 4:19 pm

Straw man, dave. Or are you equating criminals with people who are not particularly economically productive? Because that would be really ridiculous.

Prison populations are a very different question. While I think a pretty good argument can be made that it would be better for all concerned if some fraction of the current prison population wasn’t imprisoned, this has no bearing on the argument for the existence of a justice system and the existence of prisons.


Watson Aname 02.05.09 at 4:29 pm

dave, rethinking what you’ve said I’ll ask for clarification: are you arguing that some sort of BI would end up with a significant increase in the number of people who you have labeled `undeserving poor’? I suspect you’d have to do a lot of work to make a remotely convincing position on that relative to any plausibly implementable BI scheme, but your “econ. vs. morality again..” might have a leg to stand on then.


dave 02.05.09 at 6:41 pm

Well, I don’t know about you, but I live in a country where, for all sorts of reasons, multigenerational absence from the workforce/welfare-dependency is already entrenched in a significant number of communities. And large numbers of people already think that such people are feckless, workshy and worthless – one need only open a mass-market daily newspaper to see the attitude in full flow. Taking away means-testing, when people like that are going to be perceived as the main gainers, is going to have some serious obstacles to overcome in order not to be pre-emptively backlashed out of existence. Whether such people are indeed ‘undeserving’ is an open question. Since many of them are also, as they say, ‘known to the police’, there is at least an argument on both sides…


Kathleen 02.05.09 at 9:04 pm

Witt — your comments about how everyone needs “real world work experience” suggests to me that what you know about sheltered workshops is almost nothing. Some kinds of work are adaptable to some kinds of disabilities, for sure — promotion of inclusive workplaces is something I can’t advocate enough. But there is not a great potential match for every kind of disability. Your airy dismissal of sheltered workshops is either clueless or heartless; I’ll err on the side of generosity and bet on the former.

Dave — you seem to be saying that any discussion of BI is a no-go cause lots of people are racist ungenerous meanspirited beanheads. Fair enough, but that line of argument works against *any* discussion of *any* potentially progressive measure. If we wanted to make sure we had the racist ungenerous meanspirited beanheads on board before we tried for any new policies, obviously our aspirations would diminish accordingly. No thanks.


Watson Aname 02.05.09 at 9:34 pm

dave, Kathleen is right. Beyond that though, there are specific aspect to such a scheme that make it easier to escape a particular poverty cycle we know is operating. Since there really is no reason to assume that the overall numbers would have a net increase at all, how is that so hard to sell to people, even if they have ignorant knee-jerk reactions (“yeah, we know you imagine loads of people in a situation that pisses you off. Imagine fewer of them” — suitable marketed, of course)


Witt 02.05.09 at 9:54 pm

Kathleen, either we’re having a semantics problem or a reading comprehension problem. I said:

I believe very strongly that real-world work experience is good for absolutely everyone, and I have a very low opinion of the sheltered-workshop type programs I have seen in action

and I stand by that, and I wouldn’t exactly call it an airy dismissal. Obviously I haven’t been on a tour of every possible sheltered workshop.

I suspect that the misunderstanding occurred because of my use of “real-world.” I didn’t mean that every person with severe motor-skills issues should be trying to unload plywood at Home Depot. That’s a recipe for misery and frustration for both employer and employee/volunteer alike.

I meant that in my experience, it’s far better for a woman with Down Syndrome to reshelve color-coded videos at her local library, interacting with the public and with library staff, than it is to sit in a room with other people with disabilities doing some kind of make-work of cutting up rags. It’s better to be packing toilet kits for the Red Cross, or holding babies in a neonatal nursery, or even doing tedious data-entry work. Over the last 20 years I’ve worked alongside people with serious mental illness, with several different types of autism, with physical limitations of one sort or another, and with developmental disabilities. I remain quite firm in my belief that some form of real-world work experience is better for ALL of them [and me, and us as a society], even if we have to think creatively about how to accomplish it.

The three colleagues with whom I worked the longest (several years in each case) each had a champion– mother, social worker, friend — who pushed and advocated and problem-solved and more or less bullied workplaces into creating a an opportunity. Oddly enough, once the person was on board, the steep part of the curve vanished (investment of staff time in training/supervising — as short as 6-8 hours in some cases) and the person was a terrific long-term, stable support for the department.

It’s administratively more efficient to sort people, but it isn’t particularly better for them, nor in my opinion for us as a whole.


LizardBreath 02.05.09 at 10:08 pm

I think the breakdown has to be on “absolutely everyone” and “ALL”. I’m sure you’re right about ‘many more people than are conventionally thought of as employable’ and ‘most’. But there are people like my brother-in-law, with a combination of severe cerebral palsy and developmental disability leaving him functioning on about a 3 year old level intellectually, and with very little physical dexterity, who do seem to me to be not employable. He spends his days at a program he seems to enjoy, but I really can’t think of how he could productively work: he couldn’t possibly do any of the things you mention.

This is quibbling, of course — while you said ‘absolutely everyone’, I doubt that’s what you really meant.


Kathleen 02.05.09 at 10:10 pm

Witt, I’m not sure you realize how fragile sheltered workshop programs actually are, how important they are for people who have no other good options in the world as we actually know it, and *just how much* the exact language you use is what is used to defund them: oh, isn’t it terrible to “categorize” people, wouldn’t it be better for them to work in the real world, if at first they don’t succeed they and their families can just try try again! Not every person with a disability has a ferocious advocate at their side who can find them a good workplace match; we shouldn’t live in a world where families have to fight so hard to make a place for relatives with disabilities on their own; & even if they do, a magical match doesn’t always fall into place. Again, I’m saying — your viewpoint is anecdotal. I am really glad you had three good experiences with three relatively fortunate people. That’s great. Keep in mind those are three success stories. What you have NOT seen are the many, many instances in which those pieces don’t fall into place. And sure, most sheltered workshops could be better. But what you are saying repeats (inadvertently, I’m guessing) exactly the kind of language used to *shut them down* with no viable alternatives. In a world where people-helping programs are relentlessly eliminated with the “oh, too much ‘categorizing’ and ‘labeling’ and ‘bureaucracy’ is bad for everyone, don’t you agree?” alibi used every effing time, like, just — try to catch on that some things that sound good on the surface are actually nasty tricks that hurt people.


Witt 02.05.09 at 10:21 pm

OK, fair enough that my “absolutely everyone” was slight hyperbole, albeit in the service of reminding people that in a country of 305 million people, a minuscule percentage of adults are actually unable to do meaningful work. A fact that can be hard to keep in mind given an SSDI system* seemingly hell-bent on dividing people into “legitimately disabled”-and-thus-unable-to-work, or “not disabled”-and-thus-an-evil-faker.

He spends his days at a program he seems to enjoy

and if we call that enrichment, or school, or even (somewhat condescendingly) an adult day program, it’s still not a sheltered workshop where people are pretending that he’s doing productive work. It’s the hypocrisy that I really don’t like.

*N.b. Not referring here to all of the hardworking and well-intentioned human beings who designed and operate within the system, but definitely critiquing how it has come to function.


Witt 02.05.09 at 10:25 pm

39 crossed with 38. Reading Kathleen’s comments I’m guessing that I am coming across to her rather like some of the men’s-rights advocates who derail domestic-violence discussions, and I definitely don’t want to do that.

Let’s just leave it at the fact that I support fully-funded safe, clean, interesting and engaging day programs for people with disabilities who have few if any other alternatives.


Kathleen 02.06.09 at 12:54 am

Witt — fair enough.

To circle back to BI, I think the discussion about disability really is more widely applicable. Let’s suppose that Marxist theory has something to it, and opportunities for “productive work” by live human beings really are diminishing as capitalism ages. The theory certainly seems to fit many of the available facts. Something we *could* do in order to deal with the situation is to supplement capitalism-as-we-know it with BI for everyone, so that the result would look something like 1/2 capitalism, cut-throat competition, people who happen to be good at that sort of thing and/or well-connected making and losing fortunes at an exciting clip, and a certain amount of “creative class” jobs available for other people who happen to be good at that sort of thing and/or well connected; the other 1/2 consisting of massive society-wide expansion of the welfare state, with continuing consumption supported by state redistribution of taxes on the first 1/2 in the form of BI to everyone (but this universal BI being only vital to the survival of the latter 1/2).

I think under those conditions many people would prefer “make-work” to collecting BI and sitting at home by themselves all day. Witt is rather contemptuous of it when it involves people with disabilities, but what if it involved all kinds of folks and were called the Civilian Conservation Corps? I mean, it’s what got trotted out in the Great Depression — loads of make-work, some of which produced nice lasting stuff like park shelters and some of which did not. I don’t think the workers involved much cared either way — they wanted to work, not just in order to earn income, but also to feel like full participating citizens with co-workers and a place to go every day etc. etc. (this is what stay-at-home moms miss, too, btw)

It’s not The Revolution, in which all social forms are dissolved and reformed in entirely novel configurations. But I wouldn’t knock it; and I think that the contemporary work-life situation of people with disabilities is a bit of a canary in a coal mine.

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