A UBI for Care?

Guest post by Almaz Zelleke:

Thanks, Nancy, for inviting me to share my proposal for a UBI that supports women, children, and care work in general. As we weigh the pros and cons of a UBI, it’s important to be specific about the goals and details of any particular proposal, since the basic definition of a UBI–a broadly distributed regular cash payment to individuals that is unconditional on work or behavioral requirements–leaves a lot out.

As Nancy indicates, Andrew Yang’s UBI proposal is aimed at addressing job loss through automation, and for that purpose he limits the UBI to adults only. He’s not structuring the UBI to address inequality, so his funding scheme is not redistributive. Instead, it’s based on implementing a new value added tax (VAT), the kind of broad-based consumption tax common in European countries–countries that also have broad-based social welfare benefits, including universal healthcare, free or low-cost education, universal pension programs, and so on.

If we want instead to design a UBI to help support care work, the UBI has to go children as well as adults. I’d also want the UBI to reduce if not eliminate poverty–a disgrace in a country as rich as ours. And I’d want it to reduce inequality, a growing problem in the US. To achieve these goals I propose a $500 a month UBI for all–men, women, and children–and I’d finance the UBI through progressive taxes on the wealthy–ideally a dedicated wealth tax, but income taxes could work too, as long as they were truly progressive.

Nancy raises the question of the surfer and the single mom getting the same level of support, but if the UBI goes to children as well as adults they don’t get the same support: surfers, if they have no children, get only $500 per month, while the single mom gets $500 per month for herself and $500 a month for each of her children (until they reach maturity and claim it on their own). And because UBI is an individual and additive benefit, they keep their full UBI even if another adult moves into their household, or they move in with friends or family. Most importantly, if the UBI is financed by progressive taxes on the wealthy, single moms at the lower end of the income ladder keep their UBIs even when they work, full or part-time, until they move well into economic insecurity.

Let’s compare this UBI not to some unspecified ideal policy in which benefits would be perfectly targeted to the needs of caregivers while excluding surfers, but to the feasible alternatives, which as far as I can see are:

The status quo: no UBI, just the means-tested, conditional “welfare” programs we have now, which fail to support families, because 1. they are almost all conditional on working or looking for work, meaning that single moms can’t continue to receive benefits if they decide that it makes more financial sense to stay home with their children, or if they want to work, but cannot find jobs they can combine with their care responsibilities; 2. they are household-based, rather than individual benefits, meaning that a single mom who gets married or moves in with her parents, even temporarily, loses her benefits if the total income and assets of the household rise above low income and asset caps; 3. the eligibility requirements of the different programs are variable, confusing, and stigmatizing enough that many welfare programs have very low take-up even among those who are eligible.

A new program supporting caregivers specifically: I understand the motivation here, but I’m concerned that a caregiver benefit would further the disparities in care work between caregivers and market workers. At a time when most women combine unpaid care work and market work and men are increasing their participation in family care, we should look to programs that support care work by all, rather than suggesting that those who don’t receive the caregiver benefit are off the hook. Most importantly, we all, even surfers, need resources to care for ourselves. In a rich country, should we all have to work to access to even the basic necessities of life?

A full-employment/guaranteed jobs program with paid caregiving available to all: I’m skeptical that this is a feasible alternative in the US, as the model is declining even in the small Scandinavian states that pioneered it. But even there, the wealthy are able to exempt themselves from norms of full employment effectively imposed on those lower down the economic ladder, so it does not meaningfully address inequality unless work requirements are universal. And, as philosopher Nancy Fraser* has argued, this model suggests that care work is something no one should want to do, and that should only be done for pay. Is that the message we want to send about care?

What I like most about UBI is the pluralistic impulse that underlies it–that individuals are the best judge of how to use their time and resources to find the combination of care, market work, and leisure that make sense for them. This requires that we all have some resources to begin with, and that we focus our free-riding concerns where they really matter. Surfers who live off only the UBI should concern us less than the systemic free-riding of the market sector on unpaid care work. A progressively financed UBI is the best way to redress that wrong.

*Nancy Fraser, “After the Family Wage: A Postindustrial Thought Experiment,” in Fraser, Justus Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the “Postsocialist” Condition, Chapter 2 (1997).

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  4 comments for “A UBI for Care?

  1. January 16, 2020 at 8:28 am

    Almaz–one question. Would the UBI for kids go to mothers individually, to “primary caregivers,” or jointly to coresident parents? Do you know how the Alaska Permanent Fund handles this?

  2. January 16, 2020 at 11:03 am

    Nancy, the Alaska PFD goes to only one eligible “sponsor” of the child–a parent or guardian who has had legal custody of the child for the majority of the prior year. Since the PFD is a once a year payment, I expect there are fewer disputes about which parent is eligible to apply for it than there might be for a monthly payment for divorced or separated parents who share custody, or who have no official custody agreement. A UBI for kids could go to the custodial single parent or be split according to an official custody/child support agreement.

  3. Eva Kittay
    January 28, 2020 at 11:12 pm

    Care of children who are not disabled or have a significant (or chronic) illness, and care for otherwise nondisabled and healthy children require different resources. So a parent and child without such complicating costs and a parent and a child without such costs would receive the same. A person caring for an adult relative, parent or child with significant medical costs or who require accommodations for their illness or disability would under the model you are proposing, receive the same aggregate ubi as two adults without any disabling condition living together, if I correctly understand it. But the same ubi in the two different cases have profoundly different impacts. Do you have a way of dealing with the costs to the person who is caring for disabled or ill people, or even the costs of caring for oneself if one has a disability or chronic illness.

  4. January 29, 2020 at 11:55 am

    Eva, thanks for the question. In the UBI debate we refer to this as the UBI+ or UBI- question. I favor the UBI+ model, which means that the UBI *supplements* rather than *replaces* other social protection programs. Even with a more generous UBI than the one I propose beginning with we need disability and illness supplements for those who need them. What a UBI should do is focus those supplemental programs on those who truly need them and who can demonstrate need for them. The UBI removes those who need income support but aren’t completely disabled from that pool, which is a good thing, because as a society we should want those with some ability to work to do so–both for the social and personal benefits work can bring. Some will say that having both UBI and disability programs is too expensive, but we should resist that argument–we’re a rich society and can afford a decent life for all our members. And while we’re at it, let’s have universal health care too. But whatever programs we have, the key is that it’s okay if each one is modest as long as they are *additive*. UBI + market work, or UBI + Social Security, or UBI + disability benefits–with neither the UBI nor the other program benefits being reduced when they are both received–should guarantee us a decent life.

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