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Universal basic income as a strategy to ameliorate the crisis of social reproduction

Giorgia Zanco

An increasing number of women are entering the labour force, which contributes to the rise of dual-earner households. This can be seen as a gateway to economic emancipation and empowerment. However, several feminist scholars argue that this phenomenon is merely reflecting that one person’s income is insufficient to support a family, which instead requires an increasing number of working hours (by a second person). As a consequence, because traditional caregivers now tend to allocate —and on some occasions are forced to allocate— fewer hours to reproductive labour, social reproduction (the work that holds our society together) is slowly being dismantled. Currently, to mitigate this crisis of social reproduction, care and domestic services are slowly being turned into marketable goods to be sold and purchased as needed. These market-based strategies however, tend to be disproportionally harmful for underprivileged groups. Arguing for better solutions becomes necessary and, in this blogpost, I will discuss a fairer alternative for the amelioration of this crisis.

Source: collections.vam.ac.uk

Private nurseries and care facilities for the elderly are becoming increasingly more prominent. Those who need it might decide to hire professional domestic help to ensure the cleanliness of their house. Reproductive labour is often outsourced to migrant workers (typically women) who leave their countries in the Global South or Post-Soviet states to care for the children or elderly of well-off families in the Global North. Although commodifying and outsourcing reproductive labour might reduce the pressure of the second shift on the primary caregiver, such tendencies ultimately engender deep forms of inequalities which move along the different axes that make up our different identities. Being able to pay the fees of the abovementioned private services is a luxury that not everybody can afford. While middle-class and married women are more likely able to enjoy more discretionary time, the pressure remains higher on queer and/or Black women, who typically earn less and are less likely to be able to afford the costs of private structures and domestic help. By the same token, outsourcing reproductive labour further entrenches the hierarchy of race, colour, and culture that is all-pervasive in our society.

It becomes clear then, that there is an urgent need to formulate new strategies to curb the crisis of social reproduction, without harming already underprivileged groups. Historically, social reproduction —the factor responsible for the maintenance and perpetuation of our societal organisation— has been decoupled from economic production, and assigned to women. Where men were able to enjoy a cash wage and acquire a greater amount of financial power and independence, women were remunerated “in the coin of ‘love’ and ‘virtue’.” Because of mere biological implications and sociocultural reasons which gave rise to specific gender relations permeating our society, reproductive labour has been equated to a disposition of the heart, and embedded in what is usually regarded as the “feminine essence.” Social reproduction, despite its essential role in our society, was then pushed outside the wage system of the capitalist ethos and confined to the domestic realm.

Instead of limiting reproductive labour to one specific gender, or ethnicity, it would be fair to ensure that the burdens of such labour were more equally shared between traditional caregivers and breadwinners. One possible strategy to ameliorate the crisis of social reproduction could be found in the implementation of a Universal Basic Income (henceforth: UBI). Relevant scholarship defines UBI as a minimum income which is guaranteed to all members of society, with the unique characteristics of not being conditional on one’s income, savings, or even willingness to be on the lookout for a job. Even though in public discourse, UBI is often accompanied by the suspicion of endorsing or incentivising laziness, it could have the power to finally relax the ties between income and labour.

Nowadays, citizenship, and everything that goes with it, is closely linked with paid employment. Even the traditional social security programmes are conditional on means-testing and on one’s income and savings. As a result of this strong connection to universal employment, the welfare state tends to be disproportionally biased towards the male breadwinners. However, there are several other ways of contributing to the wellbeing of our society outside being employed – engaging in activities concerning social reproduction being one of them. In the words of Alisa McKay and Jo VanEvery, UBI would be “an implicit recognition that all citizens contribute to society in a variety of ways,” even by performing activities that “may or may not have monetary value or even be measurable (though their effects are evident).”

With a UBI that is high enough to guarantee a decent living standard for each recipient, citizens would be able to live without necessitating employment. They could allocate their time according to their needs, by being a full-time student or volunteer for example, or by participating —full- or part-time— in the domestic realm. The introduction of a UBI could indeed represent an excellent first step in recouping the time and energies needed for social reproduction. All people, regardless of their gender, would be provided with a financial safety net to fall back on. This would finally allow them the real freedom to choose to participate in the domestic realm and contribute to social reproduction without feeling that they are being remunerated simply in the “coin of love and virtue.” A UBI then could ideally ameliorate the crisis we are witnessing by encouraging more equitable burden sharing in social reproduction.

Of course, UBI should not be thought of as a panacea for the crisis of social reproduction; such a programme should be accompanied by additional institutional changes such as extensive availability of part-time work, a wider provision of childcare services, and stronger regulations regarding gender equity. Moreover, the entire debate should consider other underlying factors. Attention should be directed to the tendency to freeride on reproductive labour that male partners within heterosexual families have. Questions should be asked about the relationship of paid and unpaid work as well as about the value of work in itself. Most importantly, emphasis should be brought to the fundamental role that social reproduction has for the wellbeing of our society.

The debate surrounding the implementation of a UBI could then be seen as a tool to imagine a post-work society in which activities and social relations as we know them acquire a completely different meaning. Instead of further commodifying and/or outsourcing reproductive labour —practices that pave the way to inequality and oppression— we could begin to turn our attention to practical alternatives, starting in this case with UBI.