Basic Income vs Guaranteed Jobs: What If We Paid Stay-At-Home Moms?

By Stephanie Ervin, who heads up Civic Ventures’ special projects and is co-creator of the podcast Pitchfork Economics. Ervin specializes in community organizing, outreach, and public policy matters. Cross-posted from Evonomics.

Rising income inequality coupled with the fear that robots will soon occupy more jobs than average Americans has everyone calling for the creation of a modern safety net program. Recent debate on the left and the right falls between guaranteed basic jobs (UBJ) and universal basic income (UBI). Our team at Civic Ventures did an episode of the Other Washington podcast to explore the nuances and virtues of each approach.

UBI is built on the idea that any American of working age would qualify to receive some monetary stipend to supplement survival. This idea rests on the assumption that since we are all citizens of this country we should be guaranteed a minimum amount to live on—our very own piece of the wealth our country creates as an economic superpower.

UBJ hinges on the notion of work — that work brings value in a service being rendered, a bridge being built and for workers, the dignity that comes from earning a living and supporting your family. UBJ harkens back to the promises of grand infrastructure projects of yesteryear, that government-sponsored programs should always be available for anyone to earn a living.

Both of these programs assume that the future of work is changing, that some Americans will be left behind, and that any amount of cash in the pockets of average Joe and Sally in our consumer economy will mean more customers for business and economic growth for everyone.

Our office had the UBI vs UBJ debate internally, and I came up with my own idea about what could be done to address the desire to get Americans the cash they need to fully participate in our economy and exist outside of the scarcity and harms of poverty.

Wouldn’t it be great if we just paid women for the work they already do? We don’t necessarily need to create work (UBJ) or create value (UBI). Instead, we can look for opportunities to compensate Americans for the work they’re already doing — the services they already provide, which benefit other Americans. And, it has the potential to be a lot more practical.

We know that when women earn more money, families do better, because women tend to make economic choices that benefit the family: they invest in education, in healthy food choices, and in other things that lift kids and parents out of cycles of poverty.

What if we paid women (and some men) for the jobs they already do — in the home, raising kids? We have adopted some of these ideas within the in-home childcare space or in-home care providers, but what if we took it a much larger step forward?

Consider what would happen if we decided to pay women and men who choose to stay home with children from birth until they enter full-time school. The government could train those interested in the program in skills like first aid, CPR, basic childcare, on parenting techniques, early brain development. We can use the program itself to create jobs in training and coaching moms through the structured process. And then, most importantly, we can pay women who make it through the program for the primary role they already occupy — dedicated moms. I’ve long believed that modern feminism has lacked respect for and has not given credit to the inherent dignity women hold in the work they already do.

Nothing has to dramatically change, except now the hard work women are doing today would be compensated. We know if those kids were in daycare or with a nanny, that those services have market value, so does staying home with your kids. There is real value in the science that supports babies being bonded to their mothers with longer breast-feeding and close parental care in early childhood. But let’s be super clear, it also has market value in the childcare being provided. Most studies estimate that at least five million women choose to stay home and raise their children. We should pay them.

If Americans care about the strength of family, if we care about the strength of the economy, the death of rural America, generational poverty, then we should be looking at solutions that focus on getting more cash to women as quickly as possible.

Consider the data from the National Women’s Law Center (an organization founded in 1972 by four women secretaries who demanded among other things better pay and more women staff attorneys):

  • Over half of all poor children in America (56.2 percent) live in families headed by women.
  • About 525,000 single women with children (11.2 percent) who held full time jobs throughout 2015 were poor last year. That means they are paying for the rising cost of childcare or substandard childcare is taking place and STILL their full-time jobs aren’t enough to lift their families, those babies, out of poverty.
  • Female-headed households with children were much more likely to be in poverty than male-headed households or households headed by married couples. The poverty rate for female-headed families with children was 36.5 percent, compared to 22.1 percent for male-headed families with children and 7.5 percent of families with children headed by married couples.

If Americans care about lifting children out of poverty, we should pay moms to be moms. It works out financially for everyone and will likely have a positive impact on families and rural America as well as early-childhood development. Women have worked in the home forever, and the cost of childcare has taken many women out of the workforce. It would be really empowering to give all women (and interested men) the opportunity to stay home and raise the kids by paying them to do just that. When we give women more money, by paying them for work they’re already doing, we grow the economy too, it’s just that easy.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.