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Should Feminists Support UBI? An Evening with Almaz Zelleke

Almaz Zelleke on stage
Oct 27 2017
Salma Mousa

Few radical policy proposals have received as much buy-in from academics, local and national governments, and private sector actors as much as universal basic income (UBI). It’s hard to live and work in the heart of Silicon Valley without coming across UBI at least as a reactionary response to automation set to revolutionize fields from transportation and manufacturing to teaching, surgery, and elderly care. A long-time proponent and researcher of UBI, Almaz Zelleke visited us from another economic hub grappling with automation, New York University, armed with a proactive take on the implications of UBI for gender equality. Zelleke sets out to answer a crucial and contentious question: should feminists endorse UBI?

Almaz Zelleke on stage

Scholars have pointed to the potential for UBI to reduce the economic reliance of women on their husbands and to compensate women for care work that often goes unpaid and unrecognized. On the other hand, remunerating care work could entrench norms around a gendered division of labor and encourage women to withdraw even further from the formal economy. At the heart of this debate is a fundamental tension between two feminist approaches: (1) acknowledge that our labor market is gendered and close the wage gap accordingly (Nancy Fraser’s “universal caregiver” model); or (2) address the root causes driving this gendered division of labor and integrate women into traditionally male-dominated spheres (and vice versa), known as the “universal breadwinner” model.

To adjudicate between these models, we must first understand the current alternative to UBI for disadvantaged groups including women, the social assistance system.  Zelleke’s sobering analysis has a lot to offer here. She explains that leftist plans to alleviate poverty by expanding social welfare programs are all but useless as long as benefits are conditional and calculated on the basis of out-dated household units. Even more worryingly, recipients often lose benefits when they take steps to improve their economic situation and thus save the government money, like finding a job or getting married. That’s not a typo. I have found the perverse incentives inherent in the benefits system to be astonishing in my own work on the economic integration of refugees. Zelleke may be overstating the intentionality behind the program design, however. Legislation such as TANF has its roots in the 1930s and has been reauthorized every 10-20 years, with the most significant reform happening in 1996. As a block grant program, states have a lot of flexibility in how they implement TANF, giving rise to creative local programs led by anti-poverty and low-income family advocates. The U.S. public welfare program is deeply broken, but that is not to say that it is designed to discourage employment or that local-level workarounds are not possible.

Audience members

Nevertheless, Zelleke’s point is a broader and more important one. Means-tested benefits tend to ignore the reproductive work of women, female life patterns and the mutual dependence that permeates all of our lives. Instead, the welfare system takes the male working model as the norm. Being out of work is typically assumed to be temporary, within an individual’s power to overcome, and unrelated to contributing to society in other ways. Here is where the “universal breadwinner model” comes in. Perhaps women can be liberated through paid employment that emulates male patterns of work, leaving behind the marginalizing sphere of care and family. And yet, as Zelleke points out, this model ignores reciprocity for those who nourish the family throughout our lives and the dependence of the market on this care work. The benefits system and society more broadly tends to categorize life into two categories, work and leisure, while neglecting the third realm of care – without which neither of the other spheres can function.  

This is Zelleke’s core feminist justification for UBI. UBI could undo the subservience of the reproductive sphere to the formal market. Years of care are required before productive citizens can take their place in the market, so both spheres are equal. If spheres should be prioritized, the family logically comes first.  One could reasonably argue, however, that some minimum level of economic productivity is needed in order for the family to flourish, suggesting a mutually re-enforcing relationship between family life and economic activity rather than a linear one. Zelleke’s point stands regardless.

Juliana Bidadanure on stage

A mandatory FAQ of whether UBI would discourage work comes up. “Why would we not think that the labor market would adjust itself when we remove desperation as a motivation to work? We trust the market with everything else,” Zelleke responds. I wondered if the economists in the room relaxed in their chairs or tensed up.

Zelleke’s argument ultimately does not force a choice over care or paid employment for women but rather allows for a choice. Her radical, emancipatory proposition should not be radical at all: all obligations require reciprocity, not just those in the market sphere. With UBI pilots a car ride away in both Stockton and Oakland, one cannot help but pay close attention to the results – with a special focus on the implications for women.