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Meaningful Work: A Radical Proposal

To mark International Women’s Day, Neva Goodwin argues that the crisis of income insecurity and longstanding gender inequality require a form of universal basic income that recognizes and rewards the value of household labor

We are at an inflection point in the history of modern economies: Information technology, automation, and globalization have led to job loss and wage stagnation; hardship and anxiety are widespread.

There is a significant gender component to this unfolding drama. For the past few centuries, the best — and the best-paid — of the formal jobs have tended to go to male earners. Other work essential to human well-being, especially that associated with care-giving of one kind or another, was assumed to be women’s work. This includes much of unpaid household production, including childcare, food preparation, and care of elderly or ill persons in the home. Similar caring labor is also found in the formal economy, where nurses, teachers for the youngest children, and caretakers for the old receive wages, but significantly below the level of compensation for most male-gendered jobs.

The largest portion of the jobs that have been disappearing, at an ever faster rate, over the last 30 years, are male-gendered, whereas, much of the core work traditionally done by women can’t be replaced by robots or computers.

Some observers have described the 2016 election victory by Donald Trump as an expression of despair, especially by voters who had once believed that to be white and male assured them a dignified place in society, defined by a secure, reasonably paid job. A study by Alan Krueger refers to the “prime working-age male labor-force dropouts” as “an army now totaling roughly 7 million men.”[1] The counties where Donald Trump won the most votes in the Republican primaries on Super Tuesday had also recorded the highest number of “despair deaths” from opiate addiction, alcoholism and suicide among white people.

We may be facing not only an economic but also a social inflection point. Put in the most extreme terms: Are we moving toward a future in which women continue the essential work of holding families together, while a growing number of men are unneeded in the economy and alienated from society?

There are well-known disadvantages to being female: For poor single mothers, especially, life is often a desperate scramble to commute to a low-paid job while worrying about the children’s care. On average, women working in the formal economy receive lower pay and lower status than men. Even worse conditions are found in societies where women are essentially owned by the designated male relative, who can treat her, or beat her, as he likes. Yet, with all this, women often have something that the army of unemployed men lack; they know they are doing something that matters. Traditional women’s work in the home is where education begins, values are formed, and people, beyond childhood, are provided with the physical and spiritual nourishment to enable them to participate in the rest of the socio-economy. It is where the first line of defense is maintained against sickness, sadness and anti-social behavior.

Income-insecurity is just half of the issue. The other half is the meaning of work – or, more broadly, the meaning and value of what we do with our lives.

The income-insecurity issue has produced a wave of interest in guaranteed basic incomes. If such programs were put in place without addressing the other half of the issue — the deeper cultural/psychological needs — the recipients of these hand-outs would be no better off than men who, today, are living on social security, unemployment insurance, or other government assistance. Continuing the commentary quoted above, Eberstadt says

“the overwhelming majority of the prime-age men in this un-working army generally don’t ‘do civil society’ (charitable work, religious activities, volunteering), or for that matter much in the way of child care or help for others in the home either, despite the abundance of time on their hands. Their routine, instead, typically centers on watching—watching TV, DVDs, Internet, hand-held devices, etc.—and indeed watching for an average of 2,000 hours a year, as if it were a full-time job.”[2]

I have proposed a radical form of basic income guarantee designed to address the deeper cultural issues along with income insecurity. It is a complex scheme, described as “Core Support for the New Economy”[3]. In this proposal, “Core Support” would be a guaranteed income provided as compensation for work done in homes. It would be calculated according to the composition of each household, taking into account the ages of children (if any), and the state of health of any other household members who require special care. The immediate goals of the proposal are (1) to highlight, through compensation, the reality that the productive activities carried on in households are of essential importance for the whole economy and society, and (2) to enable the people who carry out these essential activities to do so without having to short-change the care work because of the need to earn money through the market.

The proposal faces many challenges, perhaps the largest being its complexity. Unlike most other guaranteed basic income proposals, it does not offer a flat amount to each adult; instead the amount is calculated by household, and initially divided among the adults of the household, more or less equally (with smaller amounts going to teen-agers and elderly) — however, household members could request a different distribution based on their sense of the amounts of time and effort contributed by each individual. A serious danger is that this could encourage the already litigious nature of US culture. A major challenge is to strike a good balance between, on the one hand, empowering individuals to stick up for what is fair, and, on the other, employing a huge amount of human resources, as households take their differences to arbitration, and vast numbers of arbitrators need to be trained up to make the system work.

The core work of caring for homes and communities — for the children and the old and the ill —is essential; it must be done. To have a healthy society, it must be done well. But our society has progressed beyond accepting that this should be done at great sacrifice by women. This work should at last be supported sufficiently well that it will be attractive for all to engage in.

The great pressures on our society at this time may create the opportunity for civilizations to face up to the unfairness that has characterized much of known history, in which women’s work hours tend to be significantly longer than men’s, while little respect or status is attached to the essential core work. We see throughout much of the world efforts — if only baby steps —towards replacing stereotypes with a fresh look at the humanity of individuals. Bringing this home to every household that contains a mix of ages and genders would start many conversations — some of them acrimonious, but the outcome could be healthy. It would provide a new basis for understanding the real contributions people make, while encouraging all members of society to participate equally in meaningful work that is newly elevated in status as well as compensation.


[1] Quoted by Nicholas Eberstadt, in Commentary, Feb. 15, 2017, at www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/our-miserable-21st-century/

[2] Eberstadt, op. cit

[3] This may be found in the current issue of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Partnership Studies, at http://pubs.lib.umn.edu/ijps/vol4/iss1/7

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