Less Work, More Time: A Feminist Perspective on Universal Basic Income
Less Work, More Time: A Feminist Perspective on Universal Basic Income
By Madeleine Schwartz / dissentmagazine.org
Sep 28, 2015

It’s a cliché of feminist media to bemoan the “time bind” that keeps women tied to the double duties of working and parenting. The solution offered to this problem, however, often boils down to simply working more. “Don’t lose sight of your goals!” “Lean in!” As if liberation were the last point on the day’s checklist. The question “Can women have it all?” distills decades of frustration and exhaustion into a problem of better scheduling: How can women reconcile an interminable workday with the lion’s share of housekeeping and childrearing?

Neither option on its own is desirable; together, they are unbearable. Life shouldn’t be reduced to a balance between waged work and housework, a balance between work and work. Instead, if we are concerned about fixing the “time bind,” we should do the unimaginable: ask for more time.

The yearly hours of an average worker increased by 181 from 1979 to 2007, according to a 2013 Economic Policy Institute report—the equivalent of each working adult taking on an additional 4.5 weeks per year. Meanwhile, wages have stagnated. Extended paid vacation time, even paid maternity leave, is still not available to many Americans. Most work deemed unworthy of pay—childcare and housework—remains primarily women’s responsibility and goes uncompensated. These responsibilities add up. The average American woman spends more than two and a half hours a day on house and care work; that’s forty-two days of the year consumed by noncompensated efforts. Even kids can’t escape the trend of curtailed time. The hours spent on homework have increased 51 percent since 1981.

In response, we might begin to imagine a world without work (or at least much less of it). The proposition for more time has been forcefully articulated by theorist Kathi Weeks in her book The Problem with Work. In order to enact this vision, Weeks proposes revisiting the idea of Universal Basic Income. A popular proposal in the 1970s supported by welfare rights workers and, in a reduced form, by the Nixon White House, basic income provides each adult with a fixed sum per year, regardless of whether or not they are employed. This money would be distributed equally from the government to all adult citizens on a monthly or yearly basis. It would be unconditional. The amount would not vary on family size or marital status or the recipient’s education level or salary.

A basic income would provide a minimum living standard. While not enough to replace a salary, it would begin to eradicate poverty and minimize income inequality. Variations on basic income have been implemented successfully. In Brazil, for example, about a fourth of citizens are covered by the Bolsa Família, a growing program that seeks to provide adults with direct cash transfers. Pilot programs have been implemented in places as varied as Namibia and Manitoba. Indeed, a modified form of basic income already exists in the United States: since 1976, residents of Alaska have received yearly shares of the state’s oil revenue. These programs have been shown to improve the quality of life of their participants; in the ten years since Brazil has had Bolsa Família, the number of Brazilians living in poverty has been cut by more than half. The pilot study conducted in Manitoba linked the policy not only with financial well-being but also with increased high school graduation rates and decreased hospitalization. It is perhaps no wonder that the idea of a basic income has grown in popularity. The Dutch city of Utrecht recently announced that it would be experimenting with a basic income in the summer of 2015. In the United States, a basic income has been advocated by policy analysts on both the left and the right.

A basic income would offer a social safety net—especially important in a time of economic instability. But it would also change the lives of its recipients in more qualitative ways. The basic income would ensure that individuals were financially solvent regardless of their jobs, decoupling economic status and employment. By offering money unconditionally, without a requirement for work or education, a basic income would offer financial support without stigma, unlike the current welfare-to-work system. Further, by giving individuals money that did not come directly from salaries, the basic income would also offer freedom and autonomy independent of waged work. Together with a shorter workweek, it would mean that individuals would be less dependent on their own labor to get by. It would give them room to explore their interests and ideas outside of work. It might very well give them more time.

Critics of basic income have argued that unconditional money transfers are no replacement for a strong welfare system, and indeed, a basic income cannot exist on its own. The sum given would have to be substantial yet not so large that it takes away from existing social welfare programs like health care and education. Further, while it would do much to reduce dependence on waged work, a basic income alone could not ensure that the burden of caregiving and household work would be distributed equally among men and women. Research done in Nordic countries suggests that gender-blind redistribution of money without incentives may not bring about equality between men and women; given the same amount of money to watch television as to nurse a child, an individual might choose the former. For this reason, the basic income could not be the only change; state supported childcare would be needed to take on part of the duties of housework.

So let us say that there is indeed a way to create more time. The question then becomes: time for what? Weeks argues that it is only politically and socially acceptable to ask for time for two things: work and the family. Asking for anything else is considered extravagant, unrealistic, and worse—lazy. Yet life is not contained in these two spheres, and it neglects the wholeness of existence to try to shuttle it away into these two areas.

Thinking about a world with more time would entail a more theoretical shift: it would mean decentering waged work from a feminist conception of a better life. Since the second wave, much of feminism has upheld waged work and work outside the home as a way for women to find independence and freedom. Mainstream feminists have often praised the workplace as the site of great gains for women and encouraged women to work and better the conditions of their workplaces through activism, professional organizations, and legal campaigns. These efforts have improved the lives of many women by offering them economic stability and opportunities once only open to men.

But waged work is itself constricting and demanding—hardly liberation itself. As women have entered the workplace, the kinds of jobs they take have often declined in quality, paying less, demanding more, and becoming more unstable and restricting. Work does not foster independence or freedom when individuals cannot choose where they work or the conditions under which they do so. Placing work at the core of a feminist demand obscures work’s problems and blinds us to life outside of it.

Instead, as we develop policies and steps forward, we should try to envision lives in which work is but one small part. What would people do with their free time? Anything they wanted! More time would mean better and stronger friendships, relationships not crammed in between work hours, family obligations, and sleep. It would give people the chance to explore their interests, creating room for activism or artistic endeavors. It would mean the opportunity for creativity and taking chances, but also fun and leisure and goofing off—all the things that are inaccessible when work consumes too much of the day. Most importantly, more time would mean not having to justify its use. One wouldn’t need to do things with this time; one could spend it just by enjoying being alive.

Rather than fighting for more and better work, we should fight for more time to use as we please. Proposals like a universal basic income may well lead to this. Most importantly, in thinking about the time bind, we should keep in mind what it would mean to be really free from it. We should keep in mind the full possibilities of liberation: what we want is not to be allowed to work more or in better conditions, but to be allowed to live as we see fit.

Madeleine Schwartz is an editor-at-large at Dissent. This piece appears in The Feminist Utopia Project: Fifty-Seven Visions of a Wildly Better Future (forthcoming on October 13, 2015 from the Feminist Press), edited by Alexandra Brodsky and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff. Copyright © 2015 by Alexandra Brodsky and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff.

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Less Work, More Time: A Feminist Perspective on Universal Basic Income