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The Tradeoff

We can situate the feminist debate over basic income within the ongoing conversation about the potentially pernicious effects of certain caregiver leave policies. Despite women’s increased labor force participation over recent decades, household divisions of labor remain highly unequal, with women in every industrialized country continuing to do the vast majority of housework and childcare (Lachance-Grzela and Bouchard 2010). Among the most widely discussed interventions to promote a more equal sharing of paid and unpaid caregiving work are various forms of caregiver support policies, such as paid caregiving leave provisions. But recent evidence suggests that caregiver support made available to women and men on equal terms will not be effective in eroding the gendered division of labor. Given prevailing social norms and against an institutional background of deeply structurally embedded gendered incentives, certain forms of gender-neutral caregiving support can even reinforce gender inequality.4

Consider paid caregiving leave. Even when caregiving leave is offered on equal terms to women and men, women are far likelier than men to actually take it (Kleven, Landais, and Sogaard 2018). This is true for myriad reasons: Gender role attitudes have changed greatly over recent decades, but prevailing norms continue to favor women specializing in caregiving once caregiving needs arise, even if not to the exclusion of paid work. Social surveys show that “traditional” attitudes about gender persist, with a robust and widespread conviction “that women should work full-time before having children and after the children have left home, while they should work only part-time or not at all when they have children living at home” (6).s Meanwhile, gendered socialization in upbringing prepares women and men for gendered specialization, even if not for such strict specialization as it once did.6 Finally, straightforward household economic considerations make women’s leave-taking, on average, less costly than men’s. In part because women choose less well-remunerated careers that are more flexible to allow for caregiving and in part because of cumulative effects on earnings potential of prior choices to prioritize caregiving, men on average face higher opportunity costs of leave-taking, both in terms of career progression and (if replacement rates fall short of full wage replacement) in terms of forgone income.7 Because women are likelier than men to use leaves or other family-friendly workplace amenities, offering those amenities on gender- neutral terms won’t meaningfully erode the gendered division of labor (Kleven, Landais, and Sogaard 2018).

Basic income would provide income unconditional on caregiver status, and in that sense, it is unlike the family support policies just discussed. But because basic income also does not condition the benefit on labor market participation, it effectively acts as a form of caregiver support: It increases the material standing of unpaid caregivers. Liberal egalitarian feminists as feminists have some compelling reason to support basic income.8 Like caregiver support policies, basic income plausibly would disproportionally materially benefit women. In part because they do the lion’s share of caregiving, women figure disproportionally among the poor and among those unfairly badly off by the lights of egalitarian distributive justice. And basic income would provide income for caregivers, thereby elevating the status of caregiving, easing the vulnerability of caregivers and their economic reliance on breadwinner partners, and increasing caregivers’ bargaining power both within domestic relationships and, where relevant, in labor markets too.

But these policies benefit women by easing the vulnerabilities of caregiving, not by lessening women’s share of caregiving. Like the dedicated caregiver support just discussed, then, basic income will plausibly increase women’s share of caregiving work and reduce their participation in paid labor by weakening their financial incentive to stay in the workplace, or return to it, after a child is born. This presents a countervailing consideration for feminists - a reason to oppose basic income. This consideration does not depend on the (false, in my view) notion that caregiving work lacks value or that it is less valuable than labor market participation as a contribution to the cooperative scheme. What feminists might object to - and what I will object to later in this chapter - is the role basic income would play in reinforcing gender-norm-compliant behavior and thereby reinforcing gender norms about who should perform caregiving.

Insofar as basic income does that, it exacerbates the gendered division of labor understood as the social norms and institutional arrangements that reinforce gendered specialization; it thereby frustrates the social aim of gender egalitarianism as I have defined it.9

To sharpen this feminist consideration against basic income, compare a caregiver support policy that explicitly aims to promote caregiving among men and labor market attachment among women: paid leaves allocated to each parent individually, on a nontransferable basis. When leaves are allocated to individuals rather than to household units, they generate an incentive effect: A father’s leave is forfeit if the father himself doesn’t take it.10 Such a policy plausibly will induce more men to take leave and, in so doing, help to erode norms against male leave-taking, promote parental intimacy and bonding among both leave-takers, increase labor market attachment among women, and promote gender egalitarian attitudes and behavior in future generations (Cunningham 2001; McGinn, Castro, and Lingo 2018; Coltrane 2009; Zippel 2009). By way of incentives for partners to use caregiver support in gender nontraditional ways, these policies can change social norms in the long run by changing individual behavior in the short run, disrupting the mechanisms that reproduce the gendered division of labor over time.

Proponents of such policies have no shortage of challenges to answer. Here I want to focus on the challenge most salient to the tradeoff under consideration, between the social aims best served by gender egalitarian caregiver support, on the one hand, and those best served by unconditional (caregiver) support like basic income, on the other. By tying caregiver support to labor markets, and by structuring it to encourage caregiving take-up among men and labor market attachment among women, gender egalitarian policies apparently forfeit opportunities to meet urgent needs of the most unfairly badly off citizens, a disproportionate share of whom are women. Gender egalitarian policies subsidize leave-taking among men and labor market attachment among women, thereby benefiting most directly the women who are most advantaged within labor markets. Such policies appear to offer much less to women whose labor market participation is insecure, degrading, or badly remunerated, and they apparently offer little to women outside the formal labor market. Worse still, the policies utilize resources that we might otherwise spend on unconditional support, which would clearly benefit many such women.

The liabilities of the two policy types can be construed in terms of opportunity costs, as this assessment of gender egalitarian policy attests. But the liability of basic income with respect to the gender egalitarian social aim is more direct. Remember that unconditional caregiver support risks further entrenching the gendered division of labor. It enables withdrawal from paid work to perform caregiving. For reasons already set forth, policies offered to women and men on equal terms will result in more women opting out of paid work to perform caregiving. By enabling someone to withdraw from work to provide care, we effectively enable women to do so. Thus, the increments of support we allocate to unconditional caregiver support plausibly positively frustrate the aim of gender egalitarianism.11

To what extent should social support be unconditional so as to prioritize benefiting the most unfairly badly off, and to what extent should it come with strings attached to discourage traditional gendered policy take-up and thus avoid sustaining or exacerbating the gendered division of labor? To address this question well, we need to be clearer about the moral dimensions of the costs involved.12 What is the moral importance of the progress we forfeit toward realizing the ends of basic income insofar as we opt for gender egalitarian caregiver support? What is the moral importance of the progress we forfeit toward realizing gender egalitarianism insofar as we opt for basic income? We want to use basic income to improve the lot of the least advantaged because their current lot is unjust. But we also have reasons of justice to erode the gendered division of labor. How are we to weigh these injustices so that we can decide, in a principled way, which has moral priority and to what degree?

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