Basic Income: A Feminist Issue
By Lindsey Weedston
Feminism’s biggest problem is and always has been how it treats women who are further marginalized. Many feminists refer to this as “intersectionality,” a term coined by Professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, leading critical race scholar and creator of intersectional theory. It was originally used to describe how the oppression of womanhood and blackness overlap to create a unique experience. It was then expanded to include issues of gender identity, ability, sexual orientation, social class, and so on. The idea is that someone who experiences one form of oppression does not have all the same problems as someone who experiences that form of oppression and others, and not to the same degree.
This is demonstrated in the fact that black, native, and Latina women earn less on the white man’s dollar than white women do. Or the fact that disabled women don’t generally suffer from catcalling and are often depicted as completely non-sexual, yet experience much higher rates of sexual abuse than able-bodied women.
Feminists are often criticized for failing to take intersectionality into account. Prominent rich, white, cis feminists regularly give advice that only a privileged section of women can reasonably follow (“Lean In”) and then are surprised when so many women who don’t have that privilege get upset. At the same time, similarly privileged feminists are out there every day, organizing campaigns that leave out trans women and marches that don’t take accessibility into account and using language stolen from women of color. They tell us to get degrees in science or run for office or risk our jobs by reporting sexual harassment without considering the fact that many of us are too poor to do so.
Basic income is a set sum of money given to every resident or citizen by the government every month or year with no strings attached. For example, Finland started a program at the beginning of this year that gives 2,000 unemployed citizens €560 per month - about $627. The hope is that this will encourage these individuals to look for part time jobs without having to worry about losing their unemployment benefits. In Finland, like in the U.S., earning any income can greatly reduce or eliminate a person’s unemployment payout, even if that income still isn’t enough to reasonably live on.
Growing basic income movements across the world are putting forth the idea that people could be given enough money to lift everybody out of poverty by the government, solving the myriad of problems that come with not having enough cash to meet your basic needs. Zoltan Istvan, California gubernatorial candidate for 2018 and basic income advocate, said that “each California household could receive over $50,000 annually if the 45 million acres of unused land were developed,” according to the Basic Income Earth Network, and that this would “lift 19 million Californians out of poverty.”
Class is not the be-all and end-all of oppression, as some individuals believe. But it does have an effect on every marginalized individual, and oppression and poverty tend to go hand-in-hand. Therefore, any feminist who claims to want to be intersectional should advocate for basic income.
It’s not an easy sell, especially in the U.S. Racialized misconceptions about work ethic and rumors of “lazy takers” and mythical “welfare queens” abound - it’s assumed that without the threat of starving to death, many people won’t work at all. This is untrue. A basic income experiment done back in the 1970’s in a small town in Manitoba, Canada found that the only people who quit their jobs under basic income were young people who wanted to stay in school. Mothers also wanted longer maternity leave, but still, most of those who were employed stayed employed. This is largely due to the simple fact that people need to do something with their time in order to feel good.
While it’s true that “being active” or “productive” isn’t a magical cure for clinical depression, it’s also true that people who have nothing to do tend to become depressed. This is why post-retirement anxiety and depression is such a common phenomenon - and why so many retirees seek part-time employment even when they don’t need it financially. If it’s true with people past age 65, it’s going to be true with younger people.
As for where the money will come from, there are a multitude of proposals on how it could be funded, but the money is there. Plus, the idea is that basic income will significantly reduce the cost of tax-funded services. Experiments in basic income have found that it reduces emergency room visits and mental health care costs, plus costs related to crime. It’s a big investment into giving everyone a better world instead of using that money to clean up the results of poverty.
But the best and most feminist part of basic income is how it will help all women and all people of marginalized identities, particularly those who are so often forgotten by privileged feminism. Disabled and chronically ill women won’t have to worry so much about whether they’ll be able to live. Though you can get welfare payments for disability, the hoops that these individuals are forced to jump through in order to get a sum that is no longer enough to live on are a full time job and a constant source of anxiety. Basic income in unconditional. They won’t lose it if they save up too much money or a form gets lost in the mail. If universal healthcare is also implemented (which should be another top feminist goal), they could live in relative peace instead of being forced into poverty at high rates because of something they can’t control.
If I had basic income, I could go to therapy for my mental illness without having to worry so much about the cost or how it might conflict with my work. Last year, I had to give up going to therapy to get a 8 to 5, Monday through Friday job. Since my therapist also keeps those hours, I couldn’t see her anymore. Luckily I don’t desperately need it, but if I did, it would severely limit my job prospects and/or which therapist I could see - and it’s hard enough to find a good therapist.
Although marriage equality is great, one of the biggest problems for LGBT+ people is the high rate of homelessness. To this day, teens are still kicked out of their homes by homophobic and transphobic parents, forcing them onto the streets. Homeless shelters aren’t enough to protect them, and can be unsafe, especially for trans people. Feminism has such a persistent problem with transmisogyny, with trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) misgendering refusing space to these vulnerable women, and even going so far as to fight to take away their ability to exist in society. Trans women of color in particular face shockingly high rates of murder, and living on the streets increases that risk exponentially. Basic income could save so many of these lives and likely reduce suicide rates, as well.
Arguably the most often forgotten women are the sex workers. I’m not here to argue that basic income should be implemented to save them, because many sex workers like what they do and would continue regardless. But as long as sex work remains taboo and some forms illegal, personal safety will be an issue for them. With basic income, however, many of these individuals who are struggling to get by won’t have to consider putting themselves in a risky situation so that they can eat the next day. They could afford to be choosier with clients, reducing their high rates of on-the-job violence.
Wage gaps shrinking. Educational gaps disappearing. Parents able to spend more time with their kids no matter how much money they make. With so many problems alleviated by basic income, we could better focus on the rest of the issues plaguing marginalized communities. It’s even possible that otherwise privileged poor people might not feel the need to take out their frustrations by attacking immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and anyone else easy to blame for their problems.
Getting basic income may not be an easy goal, but neither is eliminating rape culture, or achieving parity in government, or getting men to calm the hell down and stop killing us. If there is such a thing as a unified feminist agenda, let basic income be one of the top on the list. Our feminism will raise up all women, or it will be bullshit.
Lindsey Weedston is a white, cis, pansexual Seattle-based feminist writer and creator of the blog Not Sorry Feminism. She is working toward a career as a full-time advocate for social justice, human rights, and boosting up marginalized communities. You might also find her playing videogames, watching Netflix, and trying not to be anxious about everything.