For Catholic Social Thought, Basic Income Gets Work, Wealth, and Family Right

By: Kate Ward

September 2, 2020

Economic Justice and Universal Basic Income: Ethical and Religious Perspectives

Pope Francis’ recent support for “a universal basic wage” surprised many, but some scholars of Catholic social thought (CST) saw it coming. CST, a body of teaching on economic and political life from the leaders of the Catholic Church, judges societies by the well-being of their most vulnerable members, and encourages governments, as societies’ agents, to redistribute wealth to enable widespread flourishing. CST’s view of the nature of work also lends support to universal basic income (UBI). While Pope Francis’ comment in a speech does not carry equal authority to a century-plus of formal Church teaching, it emerges from the consistent values of that tradition.

Catholic social thought can approve of UBI on two levels: its practical impact and what we might call its internal logic. UBI can help achieve many goals sought by Catholic social thought, helping meet basic needs, supporting families’ stability, and empowering persons and local communities to improve their own circumstances. Furthermore, UBI can help us see human work and economic activity in a new and truer way, one more in line with Catholic social thought’s view of human flourishing.

Practical Benefits

UBI’s most obvious promise is helping people reliably access basic goods like food, shelter, health care, and education. Catholic social thought regards these basic goods as human rights, and it charges communities, acting through their duly elected governments, with ensuring persons can attain them. UBI would be life-changing for those in poverty, as well as many more who are “asset limited, income constrained, employed,” earning too much to qualify for poverty assistance but far from financial stability.

UBI advocates across the political spectrum—from libertarian Charles Murray to late Democratic politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan, from theologian Malcolm Torry to Marxist feminist Kathi Weeks—laud its potential for supporting families, whether biological or chosen. Since families are often the primary place vulnerable persons access care, community, and livelihood, CST sees government aid to families as a straightforward way for society to address those needs. 

Finally, Catholic social thought holds a positive view of human agency and potential. Our ability to take creative, practical action for our own and others’ benefit inspires the concept of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity proposes that issues should be resolved at the closest level possible, with more remote levels of authority offering support rather than control. UBI honors subsidiarity by trusting recipients to know what they need. While benefits like SNAP come with limits, families can spend basic income on anything they might need, save it, or use it to help others

​Internal Logic

UBI’s internal logic helps shift our thinking about what work is, how to value it, and the wealth it produces in ways deeply consonant with Catholic social thought. CST repeatedly and clearly states that work is a duty. We might be tempted to mishear this as a duty to work to provide for one’s basic needs. But in fact, the Catholic tradition recognizes work as a human duty, and basic needs as a human right, without making the latter contingent on the former. 

It helps to recognize that CST understands work as any useful, creative, or productive task done by a human, not simply waged labor. Work takes its meaning and purpose from the fact that a human does it, even if the work is unpaid, if some consider it unimportant or distasteful, or if the worker’s efforts fail. At its best, work allows us to live out our nature as creative, striving, and social beings and thereby to develop our own unique abilities. 

Pope John Paul II beautifully explains this rich view of work in Laborem Exercens. He clearly asserts that work is not just waged labor (para. 9); that governments should help support families if wages are insufficient (19); that private wealth comes from a whole community’s efforts (12); and that the duty to work is not a duty to waged work (16). The document frames wages from work as the “normal” (10) and “practical” (16) means of supporting one’s family, carefully avoiding labeling them the only one. 

In extensive pilot testing, few UBI recipients leave the waged workforce altogether. However, the Catholic tradition’s view of work dismantles the fear that people given the option to live, albeit frugally, without waged work would then cease productive, useful activity. Rather, UBI promises to free up time for just those productive activities—caregiving, volunteering, tending homes and gardens, and building up communities—that are rarely paid and yet essential to flourishing societies. 

Theologian Christine Firer Hinze has argued that mainstream U.S. culture, beholden to economic thinking, struggles to value unpaid care work. Because family care does not command a wage, we are tempted to ignore its significant tangible benefits to others beyond the family. Thinkers on the left and right increasingly agree that direct government assistance to families would help express the truth of care work’s importance. From a CST perspective, UBI as family support is not best understood as “paying parents,” but as putting our community’s money where its mouth is when we say families matter. 

UBI can help us rightly understand the economic value work creates, too. Economist Guy Standing points out that all wealth has a social character, where any individual’s gains are always supported by the efforts of others working today and in the past. Proposals for a “data dividend” show concretely how the labor of individuals posting photos contributes to social media companies’ billions. Catholic social thought shares this view of wealth’s social character and agrees with Standing that it justifies redistribution to those in need. 

Growing support for UBI has pushed Catholic social thought precepts like subsidiarity, wealth’s social nature, and state support for families to the forefront of public discussion. Enacting basic income is not the only way to ensure our communities live out those values, but it’s a promising one and worth considering. It’s up to all people of good will to determine which programs will best incorporate the values we wish to see promoted and work to make it happen.

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