Almaz Zelleke is professor of practice in political science and area head of social science at NYU Shanghai, where she teaches comparative political economy and senior research seminars. Her research focuses on the intersection of political theory and public policy, with a focus on distributive justice, feminist political theory, welfare policy, and universal basic income.
The global movement for a universal basic income (UBI) asks citizens and policymakers to reconsider the way we prioritize different values in society. Contemporary social welfare policy is designed to incentivize behaviors that capitalist societies value, including productivity and independence. Too often these behaviors are seen through the lens of market activities only—a kind of “market fundamentalism” in the words of sociologists Fred Block and Margaret R. Somers. But participation in paid market activities depends on unpaid contributions in the family sphere in which children are raised, workers are fed, and elders receive care—work that is not only unpaid but leads to lower present income and lifetime earnings for those disproportionately responsible for care.
Since the shift from primarily agricultural economies, in which care work and market work were co-located and shared among family members, the social policies of advanced economies have addressed unpaid care work in different ways:
- by encouraging the dependence of unpaid caregivers on paid market workers, as in the United States, where few benefits are directly available to caregivers;
- by commodifying care, as in European social democracies, where health, child, and elder care services are widely available and affordable to all;
- or through child allowances and universal basic pensions, as in many countries other than the United States, where child benefits take the form of tax credits unavailable to those without earned income and Social Security lacks a minimum benefit level and is conditional on a robust work history.
These approaches have very different effects in terms of providing citizens with basic economic security. But they all share a form of market fundamentalism—the prioritization of paid employment as the primary source of economic security for working-aged adults, as even universalist social democracies are based on norms of full employment and are predicated on high taxes on earned income.
UBI should be understood as both a specific social policy and an ethical perspective on what we owe to each other. As a social policy, UBI can be seen as simply a more efficient way to achieve the same goals as our current social welfare policies—encouraging paid employment by removing the perverse incentives of welfare benefits designed as alternatives to earned income. But as an ethical perspective, UBI asks us to see each other as humans first and workers second—guaranteeing a basic economic security to all regardless of employment status. Our current social policies prioritize the values of the market over the family—selectivity, through means-tests to restrict benefits to the neediest, and conditionality, through work requirements. UBI prioritizes the values of the family over the market—universality and unconditionality. While contemporary social policy allows families to provide their unconditional care and support after first securing income through paid work, UBI embodies the reverse—providing unconditional support to individuals and families first, creating the foundation for paid employment and earned income later.
Universality and unconditionality may seem to offend our intuition that those we support with our hard-earned dollars should “do their fair share” to “reciprocate” for income support. We may have confidence in what our friends and family members would make of their UBI while remaining skeptical of the motives and behavior of those we don’t know. How can we avoid supporting “free-riders”—those who take the UBI and choose not to make social contributions—if income support is unconditional? Cash transfer pilots around the world are being implemented in large part to assuage the fear that UBI would discourage work and encourage vice, but they can’t convince those for whom the most salient stories will always be of those who take the UBI and fail to use it in a way we deem worthy.
Choosing UBI requires a leap of faith. It requires seeing ourselves in others, rather than seeing others as different from us. It requires understanding ourselves as mutually dependent—beyond our own families and friends—rather than independent. And—especially in large, diverse countries like the United States—it requires extending our circle of care well beyond our own communities. This leap of faith might be too great if we distributed all our resources unconditionally and universally, but a UBI coexists quite well with a competitive, conditional market sphere.
There are several jumping off points from which to take this leap. For many academic supporters of UBI, those starting points were found in the liberal egalitarian theories of philosophers like Philippe Van Parijs, the founder of the contemporary UBI movement, in the groundbreaking feminist political theory of philosophers like Silvia Federici and Susan Moller Okin, or in the ethic of care articulated by philosophers like Eva Feder Kittay. For supporters of Andrew Yang’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, they might be the bleak economic prospects of the Millennial generation or the fear and frustration of older workers displaced by automation and outsourcing. For others, it is likely to come through the universalism and unconditionality inherent in many religious faiths. Yang took something like this approach in a campaign video when he imagined a parent telling a teen they would receive a basic income “because your country loves you, your country values you, and we care about your future.”
Love and care have too long been absent from U.S. social policy discourse, displaced by a market fundamentalism that should be abandoned on the basis of its poor outcomes on the metrics that matter: persistent poverty, a lack of basic economic security for almost 40% of Americans, increasing inequality, gender and racial income and wealth gaps, and worse health outcomes than our economic peers. UBI suggests a way to have the best of both worlds—a sphere of universal and unconditional support, building on the values and norms of family life—along with a sphere of market competition for additional income.