Almaz Zelleke is Associate Professor of Practice in Political Science at NYU Shanghai and the Co-Area Leader for its interdisciplinary Social Science Major. Her essays “Feminist Political Theory and the Argument for an Unconditional Basic Income” and “Institutionalizing the Universal Caregiver through an Unconditional Basic Income?” are essential works in the feminist literature on basic income—exploring the policy’s potential for fostering gender equality. She currently serves on the International Advisory Board of the Basic Income Earth Network and on the Board of Advisors of the US Basic Income Guarantee Network.
In this interview, we discuss historical feminist and women’s movements that demanded a basic income and evaluate how these movements’ demands complicate contemporary justifications for universal basic income. Specifically, we discuss the welfare rights movement that emerged in the United States in the 1960s. That movement—led by women of color and welfare recipients—emphasized persistent failures in the American welfare state that left women and children particularly vulnerable to poverty. Their activism included calls for a Guaranteed Annual Income, which emerged out of a broader feminist critique of welfare regimes built around the male breadwinner model. For the activists in this movement, an unconditional economic floor was a necessary condition for establishing gender equity.
Today, commentators and policymakers sideline this history and its theoretical and political offerings in discussions of welfare reform. Zelleke reconciles these feminist concerns with contemporary debate around basic income and brings feminist criticism to bear on welfare policy. Our discussion explores political change and the processes that lead to policy creation, touching on the presence of basic income into the 2020 election cycle. We consider the challenge of focussing the political will surrounding basic income, and conclude with policy recommendations that could move the US towards an unconditional UBI.
Current discourse on basic income
Hana Beach: Your work on gender and basic income provokes much-needed questions about the direction of the policy debate—particularly by reintroducing women-led movements from the mid-twentieth century into the history of basic income. I wonder why, in your view, there’s been a resurgence of basic income debate in recent years? How has it achieved status as a mainstream policy proposal?
Almaz Zelleke: I think the answer is that basic income is a solution to the problem of persistent poverty and increasing inequality. As other ways of addressing poverty and inequality have been tried and have not succeeded, it’s among the only policies that’s remained on the table—and is increasingly the one that makes the most sense.
Why has it particularly come back at this moment? It’s true that over the last five to ten years interest in basic income has increased—first in Europe and then in parts of Africa and Asia—and there have been basic income pilots in certain areas that have gotten some attention worldwide. In particular, I think that the 2016 referendum in Switzerland brought particular attention to basic income in the United States. Unfortunately, it didn’t pass, but the basic income they were discussing was a very generous one—about $2,500 a month per person.
HB: There’s been so much talk about automation. What does this emphasis say about the possible role of a basic income in society?
AZ: When Switzerland started talking about an unconditional basic income, it caught the attention of people in Silicon Valley, particularly men in tech, and men in the larger American business media. These men have noticed that we are moving in the direction of increasing automation and that this automation is going to come for blue-collar jobs and some white-collar jobs, so there’s a desire to address that potential job loss. My own view is that automation will probably change the kinds of jobs that are out there rather than eliminate them. I do think that men pay more attention when the jobs that are going to be lost are typically male jobs. They aren’t necessarily concerned about the jobs currently performed by women or the work that women do that hasn’t been paid in the first place.
HB: Right—mainstream discussions about UBI tend to focus squarely on the labor market, but that risks overlooking both the feminization of poverty and gender discrimination in the current welfare system. The arguments and justifications for a policy tend to inform its shape in practice—if the arguments surrounding UBI ignore persistent problems like gender discrimination in welfare, then the policy might fail to address that.
AZ: Yes, that’s an insightful point. Basic income is kind of a big tent: It’s a mechanism that people on the right and the left can use to resolve different problems. It’s really a kind of flexible tool. But, you have to decide the problem that you are trying to solve with a basic income and that decision will determine the structure of the basic income.
We see Andrew Yang, for example, who comes out of the tech industry, proposing a basic income for working-age adults and not for children. The problem that he is trying to solve is a working-age adults problem. I’m more interested in the kind of basic income that eliminates poverty in the richest country in the world—one that has the potential to meaningfully reduce inequality. If your goal is to eliminate poverty in the United States, the UBI has to go to children as well as adults, because our most economically vulnerable children live in single parent families. If you want to address gender inequality, it has to go to individuals rather than households, and if you want it to address inequality as well as poverty you have to finance it in a way that is redistributive.
HB: Can you speak a bit more about how women get left out of the current discussion around universal basic income?
AZ: When discussion about UBI centers around the future of work, we don’t pay attention to the type or quality of jobs that women currently have in this economy. Service jobs and personal service jobs are paid at a lower rate than semi-skilled, higher-skilled, or low-skilled jobs that are typically held by men. One of my favorite comparisons is that of a sanitation worker and a child care worker. A sanitation worker is typically a job held by a man, one that is unskilled, typically unionized, and one that pays pretty well. Now, a job taking care of children in a childcare center is equally unskilled. It is arguably a stressful job, a dirty job in some ways, but it’s a very low paying job—often close to the minimum wage. What accounts for that disparity? One’s a woman’s job, one’s a man’s job, but they have the same kind of education or training requirements. In fact, childcare centers are now requiring more training on the part of childcare workers, but the pay isn’t going up proportionally. Why is that? I think it’s because those jobs are typically held by women and we don’t value care in our society. We don’t pay a lot for it, because we know that most care is provided for no money at all.
How historical movements for basic income inform the current policy debate
HB: Your work touches on women’s liberation movements—in the UK, the US, and Italy. You’re a political theorist, not a historian, so I’m interested in hearing more about how and why you see these movements as being important for understanding the basic income debate.
AZ: My original research into basic income centered on the Rawlsian liberal egalitarian tradition. I found that most thinkers in this tradition thought that an unconditional benefit was not justified. They believed in the principle of reciprocity: that anyone who received benefits financed through a tax on working people should reciprocate those benefits by demonstrating a willingness to work. This theory underscores our current welfare state, which is based on conditional benefits for poor people, with general consensus that we can ethically tax people to pay benefits to people who unable to work in our capitalist system.
I really wanted to figure out if an unconditional basic income could be justified. This led me to a lot of feminist literature1 that pointed out that when Rawls and others like him thought about rights and obligations in a society, they typically imagined an independent adult—somebody who is neither a dependent nor has a responsibility to care for dependents. In other words, an adult man. Feminist critics of traditional liberal egalitarian theory began to argue that outside of the realm of work and the realm of leisure, there is a realm of care—all the work that goes into raising an independent adult; the work that others, typically female adults, do in their prime working-age years in the care of children, the family, or elders. In order to build a just society, we have to consider this realm of care. We have to think about how care is provided, who is providing it, and how it is compensated. I realized that the only way to justify an unconditional basic income is by taking care into account.
In the feminist literature there is a divide between those who think that a basic income is a good thing for women and those who think it will reinforce women’s disproportionate responsibility for care. They are worried that people will say that women should stay in the domestic sphere because now they are being compensated for doing so.
What’s interesting to me about the welfare rights movements that originated in the 1960s and '70s in the US and in Europe is how they inform this feminist debate. In those movements, the women who would have been the immediate beneficiaries of an unconditional guaranteed income were absolutely in favor of it. It was middle class and professional women in the 1970s who were against the idea of a basic income and who thought it would be something that would relegate women to the domestic sphere. This argument clearly doesn’t offer an intersectional understanding of feminism. When we think about what’s good for women, we have to think about what’s good for women of different classes and what’s good for women of different races and ethnicities. The outsourcing of childcare is one of the things that makes it possible for middle class and professional women to have careers. When women join the labor market, it’s not the case that care work is redistributed evenly among men and women. It’s being redistributed among women—specifically to poor women of color, to legal and undocumented immigrants, who now have to leave their own families in the care of someone else, who is typically unpaid, and earn a wage by caring for other people’s families. Redistributing care work in this way does not solve gender division of labor. We have to redistribute it to men as well.
HB: In her famous essay "Welfare is a Women's Issue," former chairperson of the National Welfare Rights Organization [NWRO] Johnnie Tillmon made that connection about domestic service work and the division of labor—her analysis, gained from lived experience, was spot on, which I think says a lot about the importance of participatory policy design.
AZ: It’s absolutely important to hear from the people who are going to be the biggest beneficiaries of a basic income or any other kind of policy of welfare reform. I’m drawn to the welfare rights movement because women were arguing for increased and unconditional welfare benefits. Those demands are clearly important to the discourse around basic income today.
The ideology of work and of making it on your own is strong in the United States. Some people who may be beneficiaries of a basic income don’t want a benefit without working for it. They don’t want a hand out, they want a hand up. They want to get a job and pay their expenses; they don’t necessarily want money for nothing. I respect that attitude. It really disproves this misconception that basic income will pay people not to work. You hear the fear today that a basic income would be a payoff to those we're basically writing off as unemployable. In reality, it provides the foundation so people can work. It provides the money that can pay for childcare, transportation, education and training. It can actually help people participate in waged employment.
HB: The intellectual history that gets told of UBI often begins with Friedman and Hayek, and then jumps to today—completely leaving out these women-led struggles that included calls for a guaranteed income. Why are feminist arguments for the policy left out of the dialogue?
AZ: The proposal of a basic income, called different things, goes back several hundred years. In the United States, the policy goes back many decades. In the 1960s and 1970s basic income was referred to as Guaranteed Minimum Income or Guaranteed Annual Income. We do have to be careful because some people who use those terms were not using them to refer to unconditional benefits—in a lot of those cases work conditions were attached. But if you look at the history of the welfare system, there has been ongoing discussion about how women would fare under different provisions in those proposals. This isn’t the first time we’ve been discussing these questions.
HB: Why do you think there is a persistent difficulty in getting the differential impacts of welfare regimes along gender lines understood in the mainstream policy discussion?
AZ: One reason this discussion has to be rehashed in America, especially in regard to basic income, is that the NWRO is often blamed for the defeat of Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan [FAP]. In 1969, President Nixon proposed FAP—a guaranteed income that was below the poverty level and meant to be conditional on work. It was an unusual proposal to come from a Republican president, but in the 1960s there was a lot of conversation about poverty and about why we have poverty in the United States. This moment coincided with new social science research that said that if policymakers wanted to address poverty, the best way to do it was to give cash assistance to people in need. Nixon’s plan faced a lot of criticism from the right, who wanted the poor to be subject to the discipline of the labor market. But it also faced a lot of criticism from the left which didn’t think the policy was large enough, including the NWRO which initially did not want to be part of the development of FAP. However, once they realized it was cash assistance similar to their proposed Guaranteed Annual Income, they became supportive of it even though they thought it was too low.
It’s important to remember that welfare is administered state by state, so there is tremendous variety in the amount of payments. This makes it hard to build a national movement. For example, the amount Nixon was proposing was lower than the welfare payment in states like Illinois and New York, but much higher than the welfare payment in the South. Since the NWRO was led by women from the North and California, FAP would have reduced their payments. In much of what I read of that period, these women get blamed for the defeat of FAP. I don’t think that’s fair. If there was a villain in the story it would be Senator Russell Long, who proposed the Earned Income Tax Credit, but that’s another story.
This blame along with the middle-class and professional women’s movement of the 1970s overshadowed the history of the NWRO. That movement was focused entirely on access to the workplace and not on benefits for women who weren’t working.
HB: The gender pay gap has become somewhat prominent in national discourse. Does that discourse make the same errors as some of the professionalized elements of women’s movements from the past?
AZ: There is still a lot of rhetoric of choice and personal responsibility around the differences of women’s pay and women’s professional success. Lean In is a good example of that. It was heavily criticized for emphasizing individual women’s responsibility, and ignoring the structural barriers women face in participating in the workplace. It’s true: women in general make a lot of choices about work, particularly around childbearing years. But to see that as a choice alone misses so much about what is important about reproduction of our society. It’s not just personal reproduction, it’s the reproduction of our workforce and society. In this country, we put too much of that responsibility on individual women and individual families. We don’t think about it structurally.
HB: In addition to the important gender dimension of their critique of welfare programs, an interesting aspect of the NWRO support for guaranteed income is that it was very much a grassroots organization, made up of the working and unemployed poor. This is distinct from the notion that UBI is a purely technocratic policy meant to diminish the political will of workers. A UBI could of course be designed to diminish political will or soften the transition to a more precarious work landscape, but this movement is evidence of basic income being incorporated into a grassroots, multidimensional movement.
AZ: We often forget the social movements that lead to policies. We think that these policies just came from the top. For example, we tend to associate Social Security with FDR. While he enacted the law, he did so in the context of a national movement called the Townsend Movement, which argued for a more generous pension, and other “share the wealth” schemes at the time. Social Security is actually a much less generous version of the Townsend Movement's Proposal.
Similarly, the EITC emerged in the wake of the welfare rights movement and was enacted against the backdrop of a lot of agitating about welfare and civil rights.
HB: Have grassroots movements had an impact on current discourse about basic income?
AZ: Occupy was the movement that brought the “one percent” into our lexicon. It got people talking about the distribution of wealth in our society. For example, there’s this sound bite that gets repeated that, since 2008, every year the top 1% of Americans get richer and the lowest 50% of Americans get poorer. We’re talking about these figures this way because of Occupy and I think that’s informed the basic income debate.
Now, I don’t think there will be a women’s movement for basic income. The issue with women’s movements in general is that women are dispersed throughout society. So much about the condition of a particular woman depends on the class they are born into. I don’t think we can really mobilize women until we have an individualized system of taxation. Our household reporting of income obscures the distribution of wealth that takes place within families and couples. I think a separation between men and women in taxation could mobilize women in the way that other individually based concerns like the wage gap have. The problem, of course, is that the wage gap is only one part of the economic reality of women. It only affects women who are actually earning wages.
HB: Where do you think contemporary will and discourse around basic income is going to go? There’s a growing number of pilot programs and demonstrations, do you think these will shape anything on the national or state level?
AZ: On the question of pilots: we need to be careful about calling them UBI or basic income pilots. They aren’t universal. I would call these schemes cash transfer pilots and cash transfer demonstrations. They are targeted to poor people and don’t improve our understanding of the broader transformative societal effects that a basic income may have.
I think these pilots are neutral at best and dangerous at worst. They’re neutral because the question of whether we should have a basic income is not something we can settle through a demonstration or pilot. It’s really about if we believe our economy should be as democratic as our politics. In our political sphere, everybody has one vote. That doesn’t mean we have equal political power, but we each have a basic political stake in this country if we are citizens. So the question is do we want something analogous in the economy. All the economic power there is is determined through the market, inheritance, or other unequal systems. There’s no way to pilot whether or not we should have a more democratic economy. That’s something we have to decide is important and enact.
There’s also a danger that these pilots will dissipate the interest and mobilization behind a basic income. I’m worried that we may study it for some number of years and that by the time the study is done, we’ve moved on to something else. I think we should try to build support for incremental steps toward a basic income now, and I don’t think we need the pilots or demonstrations to do that.
HB: What are those incremental steps?
AZ: This morning, I got an email about the National Academy of Science report on reducing child poverty in the United States. The commission looked into various ways of addressing child poverty in the US and one of the options is a child allowance—money that all parents would get depending on the number of children they have. I think that it’s likely that we’ll start with this kind of policy, a basic income for children. This isn’t a pilot, but it’s a nice way to start down a road toward a basic income.
It’s also important to think about other foundations we might need for a basic income. One thing is going to be an individualized system of taxation as opposed to a household or couple system. Also, how do we start getting people to report their wealth? You can’t have a wealth tax until we quantify how much wealth is out there.
We also need to start calculating and reporting on alternate measures on productivity in the United States. When I go home and make dinner every night, I hear what the Dow Jones has done. Unemployment figures are reported once a month; poverty figures are reported once a year. How do we start changing the balance in our economic reporting to start reporting on measures that actually affect how individuals are doing on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis? We need this basis to crowd out all the news about how people on the top are doing.
I’ve also been thinking about how to build a sense of solidarity between Americans, which I think is something we need to do to help us consider what we owe each other.
HB: Is there anything from the welfare rights movement that you believe can contribute to the current debate on basic income?
AZ: One of the things that we can learn from social movements in general is that we have to have a strategy. There may be an end goal that we want, but we need to consider what we would be willing to settle for on the road to full basic income, and what we would be wary of settling for. In Nixon’s FAP, the benefits were divided between adults and children. The benefits for the adults could have been lost if the adult was unwilling to work, but the benefits for the children would have stayed. Buried in that rejected proposal was a guaranteed income for children, which would have really helped a lot of women on welfare. I think that’s a good strategy for basic income advocates today: to aim for a universal basic income, but be willing to settle for an unconditional child allowance. Let’s get our foot in the door and get a universal and unconditional benefit, even if it’s for part of the population. Let’s be willing to start with a smaller basic income. Again, I have no problem aiming for a basic income that’s \$1,000 a month, but let’s understand that a basic income of \$500 a month would make a tremendous difference to people who are living in poverty. Let’s be willing to adjust in terms of scope and amount, but not unconditionality.
There’s a lot of discussion about expanding the EITC, which is conditional on work. I think that’s the wrong way to go. It’s true that the EITC has lifted people out of poverty, but when you think about it, the EITC is a wage supplement. Employers know that, so they can pay workers less knowing that they’ll get this wage supplement, which has a small effect on depressing wages in fields where EITC recipients are likely to be working. There’s a study by Jesse Rothstein that shows this. I would say we don’t want to go in the direction of wage supplement. We want to go in the direction of unconditionality.
HB: Any last insights into how women can mobilize behind basic income?
AZ: Teaching women that we aren’t living in scarcity is important. Convincing women to fight for access to the workplace and for support for the reproductive work that we do is important, as is illustrating that basic income is a net gain for women. If a basic income is financed through a progressive tax, either on income or on wealth, it would be a net redistribution from men to women. Why do men control so much of the wealth of the society? Do men really do the most work in our society? No, they get these outrageous income and wealth benefits that need to be redistributed between men and women. I think a growing understanding of the universal gains for women as a demographic from unconditional programs like basic income can help to build broad based movements for women.
As an accompaniment to the interview, a short syllabus of readings from the feminist literature on basic income:
- Camila Vollenweider's 2013 paper "Domestic Service and Gender Equality" provides analysis on how domestic service complicates and sits within the larger feminist debate on basic income. Vollenweider places domestic service as a counter to feminists who caution that basic income may further entrench women in the domestic sphere. The article offers a nuanced, intersectional argument in favor of unconditional basic income.
- Barbara Bermann's 2008 paper "Basic Income Grants or the Welfare State?" compares Swedish style welfare states with cash transfers to examine their respective effects on gender equity. While Bergmann argues that a basic income may have retrograde effects for women in the labor market, she lays out an alternative model for a feminist welfare state that will ensure gender equity.
- Toru Yamamori's 2010 article "Missing Women: The Forgotten Struggles of Single Mothers for Basic Income" charts the sidelined history of women's movements and their demands for basic income. Yamamori uses interviews with members of the movement to record and analyze the shape of feminist demands for UBI, exploring the complications that race and class introduce into the debate.
- Ingrid Robeyns' 1998 "An emancipation fee or hush money?" explores the feminist arguments against UBI, focussing on the potential negative effects for women in the labor market. She explores the necessary conditions for a UBI to benefit women and concludes that it must be implemented alongside other policies that target the gender division of labor.
- Anca Gheaus's 2008 paper "Basic Income, Gender Justice and the Costs of Gender-Symmetrical Lifestyles" argues for a novel metric of assessing the impact of a social policy on gender justice: "a society is gender‐just when the costs of engaging in a lifestyle characterized by gender‐symmetry (in both the domestic and public spheres) are, for both men and women, smaller or equal to the costs of engaging in a gender‐asymmetrical lifestyle." With this goal in mind, Gheaus argues, basic income is insufficient for advancing gender-justice.
- Almaz Zelleke's 2011 "Feminist political theory and the argument for an unconditional basic income" similarly approaches the basic income question from the perspective of defining gender justice, but argues that a feminist account of justice requires an unconditional basic income.