Basic Income and a Room of One's Own
"Give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days."
A Basic Income arguably represents an opportunity to transform not only the size of the welfare state, but the state in toto (libertarians would see it as enabling a smaller, less intrusive state, for example, whereas its appeal to socialists lies in its potential for redistributive effects). One under-explored point on the spectrum is that of the feminist arguments in its favour, which although not uncontestable, are worth considering.
Before proceeding, it is worth clarifying what I mean by ‘Basic Income’, as there are several iterations of a broadly similar idea floating around under the same heading.
My conception of ‘Basic Income’ is that of a universal transfer payment made to each eligible adult, with a taper commencing at the same level as the 40% tax band. It is not a Negative Income Tax, as advocated by Milton Friedman, as I think this over-complicated, and the virtue of a BI lies in its simplicity. It would replace all means-tested benefits, and crucially for the feminist argument, would be paid on a individual basis, rather than that of the household.
So, why would feminists be in favour of a Basic Income? To answer this, I found myself returning to Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’, her extended essay examining the necessity of specifically economic liberation for women’s freedom.
Woolf’s essay has of course, rightly and inevitably, come under fire for both its class and cultural assumptions, but I contend that its essential point that economic liberation is a necessary condition for freedom remains valid - not least because of the Wollestonecroft double bind faced by women living under late-stage, liberal capitalism.
The double bind is this: in order for women to achieve equality under the current system, they are required to join the world of waged work, constructed and dominated by male priorities. If their difference, their gender-specific needs and abilities (especially related to the care of children) are prioritised, women will be marginalised from the world of paid work and thereby lose both social status and financial reward.
A Basic Income would cut through this double bind, enabling women to make an authentic choice as to where on the spectrum their preference lies between paid work and any caring responsibilities women might choose to undertake. Furthermore, a Basic Income paid to individuals would advance equality between partners, by more closely aligning their financial ‘opening balances’. As a secondary effect it would enable men to take a greater role in childcare which would in turn would assist in removing the stigma of ‘women’s work’ from caring. The transformative effect would be beneficial to all parties and to society.
A further advantage of BI, albeit one that is open to accusations of special pleading, is the support it would give to women in abusive relationships. Financial control, ranging from outright appropriation to coercive control of a couples’ finances, to a women being forbidden to work outside the home, is a known feature of abuse. An independent income, as of right, and which does not have to be applied for, would be a significant assistance to women in these situations.
The arguments over a Basic Income will be conducted not only through the lens of the participants’ broader ideological preference, but against the backdrop of current debates about welfare. That these have taken an increasingly vindictive and spiteful turn will inevitably make arguing the case for an unconditional cash transfer more difficult, not least over at what monetary level a Basic Income should be paid. Its saving graces however, if well-argued, could outweigh any objections. Simplicity as opposed to the current mire of conditionality in which too many people find themselves trapped; the freedom and security it would offer everyone, regardless of gender, age or disability. After all, Woolf’s ‘Room of One’s Own’ as aristocratically privileged an idea as it may have been at its conception, was not only a liberated space, but a safe one.
Anna Hedge is an economist and author of the blog EconomistaDentata, where this post first appeared. She is @drlangtry_girl on Twitter.
Image is Virginia Woolf's bed at Monk's House, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.