Andrew Yang may well be the most feminist candidate running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, although it might not be obvious at first glance. He looks, to all intents and purposes, like a Silicon Valley bro. He’s smart, he’s from the East Coast, he went to an Ivy League school, and he likes to use statistics—lots of them. Before he began his campaign, he worked as (to use his term) a “serial entrepreneur” and he promises that, if elected, he will be the first President to use PowerPoint in his State of the Union address. In short, he is a nerd, and proud of it. His supporters—the “Yang Gang”—wear baseball hats emblazoned with the acronym “MATH: Make America Think Harder.” Yang is an underdog in the Democratic primaries, having only just scraped through to the third debate on September 12. He knows it, too. “If you’re here today,” he said in a New Hampshire stump speech, “it’s because you’ve heard something like this: there’s an Asian man running for President who wants to give everyone a thousand dollars a month.”
And he does. Yang’s signature policy is what he calls the “Freedom Dividend,” a form of universal basic income (UBI). He proposes offering every American citizen aged 18 or over a cheque for $1,000 every month, no strings attached. This is because Yang is among those who believe that a third of working Americans are likely to lose their jobs to automation over the coming decades. Truck drivers are in imminent danger of losing their livelihoods to self-driving vehicles, and many other workers are at risk—not only people in low skill jobs, but also surgeons and legal secretaries whose roles could soon be partially or fully automated. Yang insists that America is on the brink of a devastating surge in unemployment that will damage families and communities, and likely lead to civil unrest.
And the Freedom Dividend is, he believes, the answer to this impending crisis. He is not alone in this belief. Unusually, UBI is an idea that receives support from people at every point on the political spectrum: Martin Luther King, Richard Nixon, Barack Obama, and Charles Murray have been among its proponents. It offers several advantages as a response to mass unemployment. Since it is offered to every citizen, it reduces the stigma that comes from receiving welfare benefits, as well as the administrative costs associated with assessing eligibility. Moreover, by freeing people from the fear of poverty, a guaranteed income allows them to pursue pro-social behaviour such as volunteering, social entrepreneurship, caring for friends and relatives, and taking part in creative and healthy activities.
UBI can come in many different forms. There are two crucial variables: the method by which funds are raised, and the sum of money that citizens are given. The specifics of Yang’s proposal have inevitably met with criticism from some quarters. The most persuasive case against his policy is that he proposes levying a Value Added Tax (VAT) of around 10 per cent on most goods in order to fund it and, as some critics on the Left point out, VAT tends to be regressive, with poorer people paying a higher proportion of their income than richer people. There has also been criticism of Yang’s quantum. Twelve thousand dollars a year is enough to protect a person from homelessness and starvation, but not enough to live comfortably on, particularly in more expensive parts of the country. Yang has set the figure at this level to incentivise people to continue working part-time in whatever jobs remain available in an automated future. But for those who cannot find any paid work, quality of life would remain low even with the Freedom Dividend. Being forced to pay VAT on top would be financially painful for those in this position.
This is a fair criticism, but it is not the focus of this article. I am interested here in the feminist case for UBI, which is that it would reduce the financial penalty women pay for having children—as well as make them less vulnerable to abusive partners when they’re economically inactive during pregnancy and afterwards.
Women are poorer than men on average. The existence of the gender pay gap is well known, although the causes of it are controversial and attract a lot of muddled thinking. Feminists are more likely to attribute it to malpractice on the part of employers who they claim unconsciously discriminate against women, particularly in certain fields. Opponents of this view suggest instead that the gap is mostly due to individual choices: women tend to choose university courses that are less likely to lead to well-paying jobs, and women are more likely to leave the workforce or go part-time for long periods when they have children, which impacts negatively on their promotional prospects. This latter explanation is the most persuasive because, in truth, male and female earnings are very similar up until the moment both sexes start to have children. At that point, fathers’ earnings are barely affected, while mothers’ earnings fall off a cliff. The gender pay gap could more accurately be described as the maternity pay gap.
The biological differences between men and women when it comes to reproduction are stark. Some women sail through pregnancy and are able to continue working right up until the moment their baby is born. Many more are beset by vomiting, exhaustion, and pain that can make everyday activities difficult. Following childbirth, women need to take some period of time to recover from the physical effects, which can be severe. Women are advised not to drive for six weeks after a Caesarean section, for instance, a serious problem if your job requires driving. The World Health Organisation recommends that women breastfeed for the first two years of an infant’s life, which involves either regularly feeding the baby, or regularly pumping milk. Both options are time consuming and likely to impact a woman’s ability to work outside the home. All in all, bearing a child means that a woman’s capacity to do paid work is impaired for at least several months and possibly several years, regardless of how supportive her spouse is.
And it doesn’t stop there. Children need to be cared for round the clock until they start school, and, even then, school hours are so short it is impossible for a mother to hold down a full-time job without support from another adult. Unless she can afford to pay for childcare, or has a spouse or relative who is willing and able to share some of the burden, a woman’s earning capacity will be negatively affected long-term if she becomes a mother. Meanwhile, men generally remain reluctant to give up paid work to care for their children, or even take extended paternity leave.
In short, it’s little wonder women who reach the top of their professions are disproportionately childless. Some of the penalties paid by mothers are indeed due to the behaviour of employers: paying for maternity leave is expensive, meaning that many will try to work around anti-discrimination laws and either avoid hiring women of childbearing age, or force pregnant women out of their jobs. But much of the disparity is inevitable in the current economic system. Taking several years out to care for children impedes career progression, as does choosing to work part-time. This means that, even with feminist employers, women are, on average, going to earn less as a group, and initiatives such as unconscious bias training in the workplace are never going to eliminate that problem.
But having children is a choice and individuals must be prepared to suffer the consequences, right? Yes and no. Having children is very much the norm worldwide and there is often strong social pressure to do so. And it is not always a choice, particularly in parts of the world where women have limited access to contraception and abortion. Even in Western countries with a fertility rate below replacement, motherhood remains by far the most common route for women: the proportion in the population who become mothers varies from more than 95% in countries like India, to closer to 75% in Italy and Switzerland. If we want the human race to continue (perhaps not a given), and if we want elderly citizens to be supported by the taxes of working age people, we need to make it possible for women to have children without falling into poverty. Responding to the gender pay gap with a shrug and a dismissive reference to “individual choice” neglects the fact that women are currently penalised economically for making the decision to reproduce—a decision from which society as a whole benefits.
From a woman’s point of view, the family structure that best mitigates the negative effects of becoming a mother is the nuclear unit in which she cohabitates with a spouse who is able to be the sole provider during periods when she is not economically active, and is also willing to share the wealth fairly. Unfortunately, there are huge numbers of people whose families do not look like this.
As Andrew Yang points out, roughly 40 percent of children now born in the United States are born to unmarried mothers—up from 15 percent in 1980. The proportion of mothers in other Western countries who are single is also high, averaging roughly 20 percent. Despite the best efforts of hardworking single mothers, children brought up without two parents at home have worse outcomes, both short-term and long-term, in part because of the economic difficulties single mothers face.
Moreover, the current economic system in which mothers are financially penalised forces some women to remain with abusive partners. While domestic abuse can affect any couple, there is a strong gender skew, with perpetrators overwhelmingly male and victims overwhelmingly female. As a rule, there is more gender parity at the less severe end of the abuse spectrum, but the more dangerous the abuse becomes, the more female victims we see. In the UK, 94 percent of domestic abuse victims classed as high risk are women. Similar trends are evident in the United States, Canada, and Australia. Pregnancy is well known to be an aggravating factor in abuse, with violent assaults often beginning while a woman is pregnant and continuing thereafter. It is harder for victims to leave their abusers when they are financially dependent on them.
A UBI system would do far more than any other policy proposed by the current set of Democratic candidates to reduce the vulnerability of such women. Not only would it provide mothers with an income while they are pregnant and caring for their children, but it would also provide a safety net for those who do the unpaid work disproportionately performed by women, such as cooking, cleaning, and caring for elderly relatives. There was a time when, for this precise reason, feminists campaigned for women to be granted a guaranteed income by the state. The International Wages for Housework campaign, founded by Italian feminists in the 1970s, applied a Marxist analysis to the issue of women’s labour in the home. They argued that, without this unpaid work, society would collapse: the economy relied on women’s work, and women should therefore be compensated for it and thus granted financial independence.
In the twenty-first century this initiative has fizzled as feminist priorities have shifted. For instance, the UK branch of the International Wages for Housework campaign has now evolved into the English Collective of Prostitutes, an organisation concerned with decriminalising all aspects of the sex trade rather than compensating women for their domestic labour.
Could Andrew Yang’s candidacy—alongside the greater prominence of the UBI debate in public discourse—reignite this feminist campaign? I hope so. A serious problem with Yang’s policy as it currently stands is that he does not propose paying the Freedom Dividend to under-18s. There is a legitimate concern that caregivers might not manage children’s payments responsibly, but there are solutions to this—for instance, mandating that a child’s Freedom Dividend must be spent on resources such as housing, food, and education. This is an issue that should have a straightforward practical solution, which the Yang campaign ought to incorporate into the proposal.
Nevertheless, I find Yang’s attitude towards domestic labour refreshing. Speaking on Sam Harris’s podcast, Yang said his goal is to reward those human activities “that we know are valuable, but right now the monetary market decides to value at zero,” key among them child rearing and other forms of caring work. Not only would a UBI system reduce the economic vulnerability of women as a group, it would also serve to emphasise the value of the unpaid labour that disproportionately falls on them. The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote in 1957 that the costs paid by mothers are so great that “every man or woman who is sane, every man or woman who has the feeling of being a person in the world, and for whom the world means something, every happy person, is in infinite debt to a woman.” It is time to pay back a small portion of that debt.
Louise Perry is a freelance writer based in London, U.K.
This article was corrected on 4th September 2019. It originally said that Andrew Yang only intended to give the freedom dividend to those aged 18 to 64. In fact, his proposal is that everyone aged 18 or over should be given it for the duration of their lives.
Image by Andrew Frawley, courtesy Yang 2020.