The weak feminist case against a basic income

Mike Konczal dedicated his Saturday wonkblog post to the universal basic income (UBI). I’ve written about the UBI here from time to time. I am supportive of it, although I am more partial to a slight permutation on the idea that I’ve generally seen referred to as a social wage. A social wage is comprised of a basic income (equal cash grant to every adult) plus conditional income boosts, e.g. for those with children, disabilities, the elderly, and so on. I like the social wage because I think it better fits with the capability approach to equality in that it recognizes that different people will need different incomes to achieve the same capabilities.

In his piece, Konczal links to a post by Ingrid Robeyns arguing that a basic income is not so hot of an idea from a feminist perspective. I think she is wrong, and will resurrect my line-by-line rebuttal style in this post to respond to the arguments she advances.

Before I get into it, it is important to note that Robeyns is offering her arguments within the German context. Given my ignorance of Germany’s welfare state situation, I cannot comment on whether her arguments work in that context. I am approaching them within the framework of American institutions.

Which women will UBI clearly advantage?
Robeyns writes:

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.

Robeyn mentions two criteria to use in evaluating the effects on women: 1) total income and 2) labor supply. So she picks out not-in-labor-force (NILF) women as the only group of women that is clearly advantaged because 1) they are making $0 already, meaning their total income will necessarily go up, and 2) they are out of the labor force already, meaning the amount of labor they supply cannot go down.

Robeyn’s use of total income in this analysis is wrongheaded. As I understand it, she is observing that women making high enough incomes will actually see their post-tax incomes go down as a result of the UBI because they will pay more into the UBI system than they get out of it (relative to their market income). These women will be net income losers as a result of the UBI, and so they are weighed against the UBI in the feminist lens.

This is simply bizarre. Stripped down, the argument says that redistribution is, at least in part, not a feminist venture because high-income women are harmed by it (relative to their market incomes). A feminist lens that says inequality-reducing programs are partly anti-feminist because they reduce the total income of rich women needs to be trashed. This is especially true given the gender wage gap, which ensures women are much more likely to be lower-income than men are. Wasn’t intersectional feminism supposed to get rid of this kind of myopic take on things?

If we dispose of the “total income” part of the analysis, and we should, then only the labor supply disparity part remains. But these issues only really present themselves in women-men partnerships where women will be tempted to reduce their labor force participation at higher rates than their men partners. Therefore, there are actually three groups of women that are clearly advantaged by the UBI: 1) not-in-labor-force (NILF) women, the category Robeyns picks out, 2) single women, and 3) women in same-sex partnerships (SSP).

A single woman is not in a position to reduce her market labor supply relative to her male partner — thereby creating the gendered division of labor that Robeyn is concerned about — because she does not have a male partner. Same goes of course for SSP women. How many women do these three categories include? A lot. According to the April 2013 CPS, 41.2% of adult civilian women over the age of 20 were not in the labor force. According to my own calculations of the April CPS, 52.5% of adult civilian women are without a spouse, a figure which closely mirrors others produced on this topic. According to my own calculations of the April CPS, around 72% of adult civilian women in the US are either NILF or spouseless or both.

I don’t know how many SSP women there are, but you can throw them on top of that figure as well, and you start to see that — a least when we get rid of the total income argument — the vast majority of US women fall into a group clearly advantaged by the UBI. That is, the vast majority of women are not in a situation where the woman-man gendered divide of labor concerns really present themselves.

The gendered division of labor among partners
So again, we are only talking about a minority of women for whom this really comes in. But they exist. So what about those cases?

Robeyn writes:

Moreover, a basic income does nothing to change the fact that many (most?) women want to share care and unpaid work [with men], independent of the financial consequences.

Even if we stipulate this is true, it is not a point against UBI. A UBI will fail to accomplish all sorts of things, just like any other program. For instance, introducing a UBI in the US will not fix the Israel-Palestine situation. It doesn’t make much sense to attack the UBI for things it will not change. Robeyn goes for these kinds of arguments often.

Robeyn writes:

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?

This is a mean-spirited run at high school drop outs. Besides that, it is very weak. In the status quo, the high school drop out gets paid $0 and the full-time carer (i.e. someone doing care work) gets paid $0. After UBI, the dropout is paid $10,000 and the full-time carer is paid $10,000. How could the latter situation possibly be worse than the former? This is another of Robeyn’s “it doesn’t fix this other thing” arguments that just strike me as entirely irrelevant. UBI would give carers $10,000, but would not change our perception of them. Since our perception of them is a wash between the status quo and the UBI world, then how does that weigh against UBI? It doesn’t.

Robeyn writes:

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.

US does not have child care subsidies, not that I am aware of. So this argument is inapplicable in the US context. In other contexts, the social wage described above could be designed to fix this problem.

Robeyn writes:

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.

Social wage with conditional enhancers for children, for the disabled, and for the retired, fixes most if not all of these problems. If you really want to fund these things directly instead of giving out cash and having people pay for them, it’s just a matter of budgeting it out.

All in all, I don’t see Robeyn’s arguments here as very convincing, but then again I am not sure she does either. She concludes the piece by saying “the devil is in the details,” which suggests to me that she holds open that whether any of her cited issues arise will depend on the UBI design. The UBI would be a huge boon to poor women, which there are more of than men and which are disproportinately women of color; single parents, which are almost entirely women; other single women; and women who are NILF. The gendered division of labor problems that pop up in the minority of situations can be managed, and Robeyn’s main argument about those problems is not that UBI causes them, just that it doesn’t solve them. Fixing our misogynistic culture is important, but it doesn’t make sense to attack the UBI for failing to do so.