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Universal Basic Income Isn’t a Challenge to the Work Ethic

A universal basic income could not only be a solution to poverty but could also encourage engagement in meaningful activities.

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Craig Axford | Canada

“Universal basic income degrades the work ethic that is at the core of working-class life,” so writes David Brooks in a recent column in the New York Times. Brooks’ statement echoes the most common attack on the universal basic income (UBI). Like other critics of the idea, he offers no evidence to support the claim.

Universal basic income won’t undermine the work ethic, but it is a threat to some of our most deeply embedded ideas about what constitutes meaningful work. With the large-scale adoption of wage labor beginning in the 19th century, we began to identify work with a paycheck. Instead of a job being a kind of work, jobs came to be seen as the only work that really mattered.

Unfortunately, by connecting ‘worthwhile’ work to a regular income we’ve devalued almost to zero many of the most important and meaningful activities within our society. The most obvious example is parenthood. Motherhood, in particular, has taken the biggest hit.

Being a Parent and Citizen

Every parent knows that raising children is difficult and exhausting work. Especially in the early years when a child is most dependent upon the adults in its life parenting can leave a mother or father with too little energy at the end of the day to do much else. Raising a child is considered a duty, and one that is supposed to be its own reward at that. No good parent, least of all a good mother, would ever suggest society should provide a minimum guaranteed level of financial security in exchange for the honor of giving birth to and raising the next generation of responsible citizens.

Yet in identifying work so strongly with a paying job, we’ve implicitly demeaned those raising our children whether we intended to or not. Work is what we do at the office, at the factory or at the retail store. Parenthood, on the other hand, is a role.

Of course, parenthood isn’t the only work we refuse to validate on the grounds it doesn’t come with a wage attached. Caregivers of all sorts often go unpaid. So do those sacrificing hours each month to help out in our schools, clean up their local park or provide countless other community services. This is justified on the grounds that volunteerism, like parenthood, should come from the heart without any expectation of a monetary reward.

Many supporters of universal basic income could reasonably argue that framing it as a kind of compensation for work our society has so far let go uncompensated is to miss the point of the policy. If an individual decided to take advantage of a monthly UBI payment and, as David Brooks and others fear, opted for sitting on the couch watching TV or playing video games all day instead of engaging in more constructive activities, they would still get their monthly check, no questions asked. UBI is about ending poverty, not making parenthood or community service pay.

While it’s true that universal basic income isn’t intended as compensation for services that society currently doesn’t pay for, at least not directly, it is none-the-less a means of making it easier to raise a family and of empowering people to engage in even more volunteerism. That doing these things is not a condition of receiving a UBI payment in no way changes the fact that determining UBI’s success would in large part rest upon shifting our focus to the kinds of worthwhile human activities that our economy currently fails to even bother to measure.

As RFK reminded us in 1968, our leading economic indicators count just about everything except what really matters. Economic security isn’t just a social justice question. It’s also about creating more space in people’s lives for the things that make life worth living.

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans. ~ Robert Kennedy, March of 1968

Universal Basic Income and Work Ethic

Critics of universal basic income who insist that placing a floor beneath people’s feet below which they cannot sink will turn them into lazy dullards must have a particularly cynical view of humanity. Otherwise, why would they claim that we are inherently uninterested in leading fulfilling lives? Why do they consistently argue that our species consists primarily of individuals who would sooner gorge themselves on junk food all day than play with their children or grandchildren, pick up a paintbrush, write a little poetry, volunteer at a local care center, or take a class at their local college if given the chance to do so?

Whatever the reasons behind their dark misanthropic assumptions regarding human nature, the evidence can’t possibly be one of them. In their review of the results of a basic income experiment conducted in Manitoba between 1974 and 1979, the economists Derek Hum and Wayne Simpson found that “the reduction in work effort was modest: about one percent for men, three percent for wives, and five percent for unmarried women.”

Of course, by “work effort” Hum and Simpson mean time spent at a paying job. But even if they had found that people spent far less time on the job and a lot more time with their families, would this really have counted as a good argument against UBI? Does time away for the office or factory necessarily translate into laziness? How we answer these questions says a great deal about our priorities.

In reality, a universal basic income would actually help those living in poverty avoid what’s known as “the employment trap”. The employment trap describes a situation that arises far too often among current welfare recipients. Frequently, the only jobs available to them are low-income entry-level positions. These typically minimum wage jobs don’t pay enough to cover rent, food, clothing and childcare expenses, but they can provide just enough money to make someone ineligible for public assistance. As a result, welfare recipients often lose more money than they gain by going back to work.

By making a return to work a requirement of its welfare program, the United States has actually turned jobs into traps rather than escape hatches for the poor. A universal basic income, on the other hand, provides assistance each month whether a person is working or not. With a full-time minimum wage job AND a basic income of roughly $1000 a month, a single mother who chooses to go back to work could increase her annual income to nearly $30,000 a year without being penalized for doing so.

A universal basic income should be something voters and politicians from across the political spectrum can get behind. From the conservative perspective, it strengthens families by empowering parents who want to do so to stay at home with a child during its formative years. From a liberal point of view, it tackles poverty directly and efficiently without the bureaucracy and stigma associated with most of our existing anti-poverty programs.

While David Brooks and other critics of UBI clearly embrace the myth that humans are inherently lazy creatures who are unwilling to do anything constructive with their lives without the cattle prod of perpetual financial insecurity at their back, that’s a false and demeaning narrative that is more suited for the Dark Ages than the 21st century. People can achieve great things under even the worst of circumstances. But they can achieve even more when things are going well for them. Poverty is no longer an inevitable part of life. It’s a societal choice. We need to stop listening to those who seem to think it’s the right one.

Follow Craig on Twitter or read him at Medium.com

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