BASIC INCOME AND DOMESTIC WORK
Domestic work, also called reproductive or care work, has many definitions, mainly because of the difficulty of covering all the activities it involves. Yet there are some constants in all of these definitions: they generally include child-rearing, caring and nursing activities carried out at home, as well as other activities concerned with the wellbeing of people living under the same roof, especially with the oldest and youngest members of the household. Taking these constants into account, we could say that domestic work is that which is carried out in the home to attend to one’s own needs and those of others, and that it includes activities such as cleaning, preparing meals, shopping, looking after children, old people and any sick members of the household.
One of the oldest definitions of domestic work was offered by Margaret Reid in her pioneering work Economics of Household Production (1934). For Reid, domestic production means unpaid work carried out by and for members of the family. Interestingly, however, she focuses on activities that can be replaced by products on the market or remunerated services, when factors such as income, the market situation and consumer preferences make it possible to engage the services of others from outside the family.
Beyond these aspects, there are four characteristics of domestic work that should be taken into account. First, domestic work uses goods acquired on the market or through services offered by public administrations to produce goods and services destined for home (or self-) consumption, but it does not draw on exchange. Second, and related to this, there is no monetary payment. Third, the basic aim is reproduction of the labor force, with an immediate result being a reduction of subsistence costs. Finally, the person who carries out this work establishes some control over pace and timetables.
Domestic work is carried out by both sexes, but by no means proportionally. In rich and poor countries alike, women do by far the greater share. Surveys show that in the European Union, more than 80 percent of women who have children at home spend four hours every day on housework, compared to only 29 percent of men.
There is no doubt that when less time is spent on remunerated work, more time is given to domestic work. But the gender proportions are very different here, too. Women who spend less time on remunerated work devote much more time to domestic work than men in the same situation. Also deserving attention is the rather inconsistent practice of considering the exact same activity as work in some cases and as not-work in others (cooking, for example). Why? Because people think that only an activity for which one is paid can be called work.
How might domestic work be affected by a Basic Income? A general aside is relevant at this point. A Basic Income will not solve all the social problems related with the sexual division of labor. Sexual inequalities and gender-based discrimination are two major social problems requiring much more sweeping changes than a Basic Income alone. But a Basic Income would certainly permit greater freedom for women. More than two centuries ago, Mary Wollstonecraft pointed out that rights, citizenship and a better status for women—both married and single—required their economic independence.
Many women who are caught in the poverty trap within the present-day system of means-tested subsidies could escape from it with a Basic Income. The feminization of poverty would be greatly mitigated. Since Basic Income is universal and thus paid to both men and women, it follows that at least some problems arising from assigning allowances to the (usually male) head of the family would be resolved. A Basic Income could therefore change the distribution of domestic tasks between men and women in some households. Whatever the case, the negotiating power of a woman receiving a Basic Income would be greater with it than without it. To sum up, women would gain a lot, not only with an income but in terms of freedom as well.
BASIC INCOME AND VOLUNTARY WORK
Voluntary work is understood as using one’s own time in unpaid activities devoted to helping others, without coming under the rubric of domestic work. Voluntary work embraces a wide range of areas including nursing, education, solidarity with the poor and marginalized, prison work, counseling of battered women, relief work after natural disasters, helping refugees, and aid work in the developing world.
The motivation for engaging in voluntary work may be twofold. First is personal satisfaction. This would be the case with autotelic activity, the reward for which is the activity itself—the opposite of instrumental activity, where the process is merely a means to an end. Remunerated work, with some exceptions, is basically instrumental. If you have to acquire essential items like food, housing, clothes and so on, you need money and, for most people, paid work is the only way of getting it.
It would be difficult to understand voluntary work if it were not autotelic. The same thing happens with political participation, when understood as a firm commitment rather more than voting every so often—and something that brings its own rewards. Evidently, autotelic work would not include the work of officials, office-holders and paid appointees for whom political activity is as instrumental as any other salaried job, with its own perks, power, influence, cushy conditions, glitz and so on.
A second motivation of voluntary work might be altruism, understood as genuine concern for the welfare of anyone who benefits from the work. This is not to deny that some feel-good effects, or the desire to be admired, could come into play as instrumental factors in voluntary work. In short, this second benevolent motivation is related to the first, even if they can be conceptually separated.
One essential rule binding the political and economic effects of a Basic Income is that sustainable democracy requires high levels of political participation, which, in turn, requires much lower levels of economic inequality to free up time and resources for political activity. Today, when 62 people control more than half the world’s wealth, we have a highly unsustainable global political system on a planet now entering the Sixth Extinction. Without major changes at the base of society and in the ways in which we understand work and progress, things can only get worse.
The introduction of a Basic Income could provide a stimulus to voluntary work and political participation, which generally requires much more time than people have available at present. Voluntary work, in this sense, should not be considered an “alternative” to remunerated work, which, in the absence of other sources of income, remains essential for survival. Many people who would like to engage in voluntary activities simply cannot do so due to a lack of resources.
The democratic possibilities of greater freedom in the sphere of work were not lost on the freed slave Garrison Frazier, who stated that “the freedom promised by the proclamation is taking us from under the yoke of bondage, and placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor, take care of ourselves and assist the government in maintaining our freedom…”
BASIC INCOME AND HUMAN DIGNITY
Poverty is much more than just an economic problem. The importance of its social, political, environmental, legal and occupational aspects become much clearer when the effects of a Basic Income are considered from the standpoint of the world’s poorest people. One example will suffice. In 2008-‘09 a pilot project was carried out in the Namibian village of Otjivero, where 930 residents received 100 Namibian dollars (about 9 euros) a month. Poverty levels fell from 76 percent to 37 percent, and figures for underweight children from 42 percent to 10 percent.
People in Otjivero started to use the local clinic, school attendance rose, household debt dropped, social relations improved and there was a considerable decrease in crime. Meanwhile, economic activity flourished when the beneficiaries started their own businesses like brick-making and baking bread. The conclusion is that, in poor countries, proceeds from cleaning up corruption, presently misused aid money, taxes on tourism, cars and luxury goods could be better used to finance a Basic Income.
In the absence of fully-fledged examples in practice, the general political benefits of Basic Income can only be hypothesized. As Naomi Klein suggests in This Changes Everything, they could even be planet-saving. Most people would agree that humans need more in their lives than just working to sustain bare existence. If basic needs are not met people are unlikely to fulfill other human needs like security, love, belonging, esteem, leisure, creativity, spontaneity and problem-solving—all aspects of human life that are commonly associated with freedom.
To put it slightly differently: the three core underlying values of human rights and a democratic society—freedom, justice and human dignity—require basic needs to be satisfied. Wage labor rarely respects freedom, justice and human dignity. A universal, unconditional Basic Income could go a long way in honoring the thus far hollow promise of Article 23 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.” The bottom line, however, is that it is not work but a guaranteed material existence that gives dignity to human life.
Daniel Raventós is a professor of economics at the University of Barcelona, a member of the editorial committee of the journal Sin Permiso and president of the Basic Income Network, Red Renta Básica. He is also a member of ATTAC’s scientific committee, a frequent contributor to Counterpunch and the author of the book Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom (Pluto Press, 2007).
Julie Wark is the author of Indonesia: Law, Propaganda and Terror, (Zed Press, 1983) and Manifiesto de derechos humanos (Ed. Barataria. 2011), published in English as The Human Rights Manifesto (Zero Books, 2012) as well as numerous articles on human rights.