…and justice for all? Basic income and the principles of gender equity

Published Tue 8 Mar 2016
Nowhere have basic income proposals been more hotly debated than among feminists. Perhaps it is ironic, then, argues Caitlin McLean, that a basic income has the potential to overcome deep divisions by satisfying core principles of gender equity, as well as improving the position of women in all their diversity.
Juncture 22.4: Spring 2016

International interest in universal basic income[1] proposals has increased markedly in recent years.[2] In the UK a basic income has been supported by the Green party and the non-partisan Citizen’s Income Trust. In other countries, such as Finland and France, proposals for basic income pilots and experiments are on the agenda.

The arguments for implementing a basic income are many and varied,[3] yet the proposal remains controversial. And nowhere is this controversy more prominent than among feminists, who have hotly debated the merits of a basic income in terms of its potential contributions to gender equality. Feminist advocates for basic income have pointed to its potential to correct the paid-work bias of contemporary social security systems, and to increase women’s economic autonomy and power within the household by providing a source of unconditional income support that is not tied to paid employment.[4] Critics have argued that basic income will do nothing to directly challenge the gendered division of labour – and may well reinforce it, especially to the extent that unconditional cash benefits increase the incentive for women in particular to reduce their labour market participation, given their relatively weaker attachment to the labour force as a group relative to men, and the central role that this plays in broader inequalities such as income gaps and poverty risks.[5] Accordingly, the feminist debate about basic income has reflected wider feminist disputes about how the state can recognise the unpaid work largely done by women, such as the care of children and the elderly, without reinforcing existing inequalities between men and women.

Recently, many of basic income’s advocates have argued that it promotes gender equality precisely because it is able to skirt this long-running debate. Like Nancy Fraser’s famous ‘universal caregiver’ policy model,[6] a basic income has the potential to satisfy the two core principles of gender equity: anti-marginalisation and anti-androcentrism. This twin potential is the keystone of Fraser’s argument in favour of a universal caregiver model over the caregiver parity or universal breadwinner models. She argued that a caregiver parity model (whereby income supports are directed toward caregivers specifically) would lead to marginalisation, secluding women in the private sphere and perpetuating gender essentialism; on the other hand, the universal breadwinner model (whereby income supports are tied to paid employment) would perpetuate androcentrism by emphasising masculine life-patterns and requiring women to conform to men’s standards in order to be considered equal. Fraser argued that avoiding both of these outcomes requires that we follow what she called the universal caregiver model, under which both men and women are encouraged and supported to participate in the labour market as well as the care and work of the household.

Advocates of basic income have pointed out that it represents a move towards this type of policy model, because its lack of conditionality means that it goes down neither the labourist nor the care path of citizenship.[7] A basic income provides a floor of economic security for everyone, and remains neutral regarding what activities they engage in. In this sense a basic income avoids the drawbacks of a universal breadwinner model that perpetuates androcentric assumptions about the nature of work. But at the same time, a basic income provides a means of valuing the care work that cannot be provided via state or market.

Basic income and intersectionality

A key missing component in the discussion thus far is attention to intersectionality. In recent years, feminist thought has increasingly shifted towards understanding and accounting for the heterogeneity of women’s experiences, and the difficulties of effectively including all types of women in the feminist movement. The role that divides among women play in gender inequality between men and women has emerged as a key debate. Intersectionality, or ‘complex inequality’,[8] means that the experience of any given woman is shaped not only by her gender but by other systems of social stratification such as race and class – and that these dimensions are not simply an additional facet of her identity, but affect her gendered experience as well.

For debates about basic income in particular, intersections between gender and class are especially relevant.[9] Basic income proposals are, in essence, an attempt to provide economic security and raise the welfare floor for the least well-off, without encouraging stigmatisation or further increasing the hardships that they face in terms of complex eligibility and administrative requirements. Thus there is a case to be made that, to the extent that a basic income addresses these particular issues, it does not only reduce or alleviate the suffering associated with poverty and income inequality – it also helps further gender equality goals, particularly when taking heterogeneity among women into consideration as well as differences between women and men.

Crucially, such issues are addressed in Fraser’s underlying framework, even if they are not explicit in shorthand references to the universal caregiver model. In their emphasis on the universal caregiver model, feminists debating the merits of a basic income have downplayed two additional principles of gender equity – anti-poverty and anti-exploitation – that a basic income is best-placed to address, especially when compared to other commonly advocated gender equality measures such as childcare provision or parental leave policies.

Anti-poverty AND anti-exploitation

Fraser lists ‘anti-poverty’ as the very first principle of gender equity. She argues that the prevention of poverty is a key aspect of gender equality, given that women in general are at higher risk of it than men. Indeed, the phrase ‘feminisation of poverty’[10] was coined in recognition of the fact that women tend to be economically disadvantaged in the labour market for a variety of reasons, including responsibilities for children and domestic tasks as well as outright discrimination, which leads to lower market income. This economic risk is then further compounded by many aspects of current social security systems that tie income supports to labour market participation.

While poverty may be ‘feminised’, certain groups of women are clearly more vulnerable to poverty than others. This is particularly true of single mothers, although the level of risk to which they are exposed varies by country. Further, ethnic minority women, disabled women, refugees and migrant women also face a higher degree of economic disadvantage, such that they might be especially likely, relative to more privileged women, to benefit from an income floor. The anti-poverty agenda also recognises gender inequalities as a global or international, rather than intra-national, issue. A high proportion of the world’s poor are women, with those in many developing countries facing a greater array of social, political and economic disadvantages that raise their risk of poverty, as well as related problems such as poor health.

Thus the potential for a basic income to reduce poverty is a crucial component of its potential contribution to decreasing gender inequality. Basic incomes can contribute to poverty reduction in the straightforward sense of securing a certain level of financial welfare via cash transfers. This has been one of the key rationales for piloting basic income proposals in countries in the global south such as Namibia and India, where the anti-poverty effects of cash transfers are most stark given their low standards of living.

Furthermore, the universal aspect of a basic income is likely to increase its effectiveness in terms of preventing, rather than simply alleviating, poverty, because it avoids the unemployment traps of targeted cash transfers. Basic income recipients are free to combine paid employment with receipt of the benefit, and do not risk losing a steady income stream by taking on paid employment or increasing their hours at work. This is especially relevant for single and lower-income women, who are particularly likely to be recipients of targeted cash transfers.

The core role of a basic income in providing economic security and stability also contributes to Fraser’s second principle of gender equity: anti-exploitation. She characterises this as the prevention of the exploitation of vulnerable people, including within the household as well as via the market and the state. Crucially, Fraser argues that anti-exploitation as a principle requires that welfare benefits are not linked to dependency relationships (such as benefits through a husband or an employer). This is a key strength of basic income proposals as opposed to other forms of social security: it has the potential to reduce the power of ‘bosses, boyfriends and bureaucrats’[11] over women’s lives.

With regard to ‘bosses’, a core argument among basic income advocates more generally is that an unconditional source of income will increase the bargaining power of the worker in relation to the employer, as the threat of destitution is removed. This is especially relevant for women given that they tend to be lower paid and in lower authority positions.

With regard to ‘boyfriends’, as an individual-level benefit, basic income helps to redress (or, at the very least, avoids exacerbating) intra-household inequalities between men and women in couple relationships. A core feminist critique of tax-benefit systems has been their use of household rather than individual-level assessments. This system relies on assumptions about the equal sharing and pooling of household income and other resources, which does not always hold in practice – usually to the disadvantage of women and children, who tend to bring lower amounts of independent income into the household. Economic inequalities within the household also underpin and reinforce power differentials between men and women, and between children and adults, more generally. Individual, unconditional payments paid to everyone have the potential to offset some of these inequalities.[12] For women who make less money than their partners, or who would otherwise have no income of their own, a basic income could increase their bargaining power within the household.

A less commonly acknowledged but nevertheless key avenue for exploitative power relationships is the interaction between women and the state. Paternalistic, intrusive and/or coercive interactions between welfare administrators and claimants have become particularly relevant in recent years given the increased use of sanctions in some countries, such as the UK and the US, in order to control the behaviour of those claiming benefits. In contrast to means-tested and/or conditional cash benefits, a basic income’s universal and unconditional nature would remove the need for eligibility enforcement, and so reduce the power and oversight of state officials and caseworkers over benefit claimants’ personal lives – an issue that is especially pertinent for women, who are more likely to be claimants and more likely to be subject to scrutiny of their coupled relationships based on household-level means-testing.

Intersectionality, and a renewed feminist case for basic income

The basic income debate as it currently stands reflects a fundamental feminist disagreement – namely, what to do about the unpaid work of the household: how to value it (and avoid perpetuating androcentric biases) without reinforcing the gendered division of labour and the resultant socioeconomic disadvantaging of women. Nevertheless, the worker-vs-mother dichotomy does not encapsulate the sum total of the female experience, or of gendered disadvantage.

Attention to intersectionality provides an opportunity to widen the feminist debate about basic income beyond care alone, and to better incorporate insights about the diversity of women’s experience. Arguably, this also strengthens the case for a basic income in relation to the goal of gender equality. Not only does it mediate one of the core polarising issues among feminists (whether to prioritise support for labour market participation or care work in the home), but it also addresses issues that are sometimes sidelined within the feminist movement yet which are especially important for the most vulnerable groups of women – issues such as poverty and the exploitation of unequal power relationships between women and their employers, their families and state administrators.

Caitlin McLean is workforce research specialist at the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California-Berkeley. Previously she was Ailsa McKay postdoctoral fellow at Glasgow Caledonian University, where her research focussed on examining the feminist case for a basic income.

This article appears in edition 22.4 of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas, published by Wiley.


[1] ‘Basic income’ refers to a cash benefit that is: universal – paid to everyone in the population; individual – paid to each adult rather than as a single household payment; and unconditional – paid without means-testing or conditions with regard to family or employment status.

[2] Edition 22.4 of Juncture features two other articles on the basic income, by Anthony Painter and Hillel Steiner.

[3] McLean C (forthcoming 2016) ‘Debating a Citizen’s Basic Income: An International and Cross-Disciplinary Perspective’, in Campbell J and Gillespie M (eds) Feminist Economics and Public Policy: Reflections on the Work and Impact of Ailsa McKay, Routledge.

[4] See McKay A (2001) ‘Rethinking Work and Income Maintenance Policy: Promoting Gender Equality through a Citizens’ Basic Income’, Feminist Economics 7(1): 97–118; McKay A (2005) The Future of Social Security Policy: Women, Work and a Citizens’ Basic Income, Routledge; Pateman C (2004) ‘Democratizing Citizenship: Some Advantages of a Basic Income’, Politics and Society 32(1): 89–105; and Zelleke A (2011) ‘Feminist Political Theory and the Argument for an Unconditional Basic Income’, Policy and Politics 39(1): 27–42.

[5] Gheaus A (2008) ‘Basic Income, Gender Justice and the Costs of Gender-Symmetrical Lifestyles’, Basic Income Studies 3(3): 1–8; Robeyns I (2001) ‘Will a Basic Income do Justice to Women?’, Analyse 23(1): 88–105.

[6] Fraser N (1994) ‘After the Family Wage: Gender Equity and the Welfare State’, Political Theory 22(4): 591–618.

[7] See for example Zelleke A (2008) ‘Institutionalizing the Universal Caretaker through a Basic Income?’, Basic Income Studies 3(3): 1–9.

[8] McCall L (2001) Complex Inequality: Gender, Class, and Race in the New Economy, Routledge.

[9] The importance of intersectionality, especially gender–class divisions, as it pertains to debates about basic income has been recently raised by Camila Vollenweider, who focussed specifically on the role of domestic service in structuring class relations between women. See Vollenweider C (2013) ‘Domestic Service and Gender Equality: An Unavoidable Problem for the Feminist Debate on Basic Income’, Basic Income Studies 8(1): 19–41.

[10] Pearce D (1978) ‘The Feminization of Poverty: Women, Work, and Welfare’, The Urban and Social Change Review 11(1–2): 28–36.

[11] Levine J (2013) Ain’t No Trust: How Bosses, Boyfriends, and Bureaucrats Fail Low-Income Mothers and Why It Matters, University of California Press.

[12] Robeyns 2001.

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