Could Basic Income Help Address the Gender Wage Gap?

Fixing a Fundamental Flaw in Modern Capitalism

Home — where the vast majority of unpaid work happens.

Please excuse me while I go clean out my inbox to make room for all the hate mail I’m about to get…

The gender/POC pay gap has finally been getting some serious attention and airtime, but what if we are thinking too small? What if it isn’t just about:

  • more women and POC in higher paying, traditionally (white) male roles
  • more women and POC decision makers and leaders
  • wage parity (female/POC engineers being paid equally to male engineers)
  • no pay dock after time off for maternity leave or caring for a sick family member

What if it’s actually about women taking over the whole world?!? Mwahahaha. (Just kidding, fellas).

What if we have the opportunity to address something much more fundamental? What if we could accurately value ALL work, even work that the market does not currently recognize? What if a key part of designing the future of our economy and employment is to compensate everyone for the extremely high value roles that they presently play pro bono for society?

But…but...but what about capitalism? What would be the implications for “free market Capitalism” as we know it today? (Spoiler alert: what we have isn’t a free market at all). It’s not just the subsidies and tax loopholes and regulations that bastardize our imperfectly competitive system. Or that we haven’t learned how to deal with the negative externalities it produces like widgets. Or that more and more people are squeezing into coach while big business, banks, and governments are comfortably stretched out with their donors and funders in first class. Capitalism as we know it today has a much deeper, more fundamental flaw. It stems from the fact that the deck was stacked from the start. And nowhere is that more obvious than in the labor market.

The most fundamental building blocks of societies are humans. Yet the lion’s share of their care, education, and development from birth to death (arguably the most important work that can be done) goes uncompensated. This absolutely vital work that offers tremendous value to our economy— the hours, energy, and thankless effort dedicated to the wellbeing of our families — isn’t gainful employment. (Well, some people get paid for it, as long as it is done for someone else’s family. Same work — vastly different wage. Which results in people having to go to work to pay for someone else to take care of their family. Le sigh.) And, oh, by the way, this essential yet unpaid work just so happens to be the most female “job” in the world.

Part of the reason women are paid less is because work that is predominantly performed by females, so called “women’s work,” is and always has been under valued from a financial standpoint. It’s not that the work is objectively less essential or less valuable, it’s that we’ve put a different price tag on it simply because women were the people to perform it. Because when wages were being decided, the people making those decisions were men. The people running the companies and the governments and the households were men. The breadwinners were men. Ergo, the work that was most highly valued and compensated by our economy was clearly going to be the work done by men.

I don’t say that to suggest that there was some intentionally diabolical plan to suppress anyone, but as a former labor negotiator, I’ve been at enough collective bargaining tables to know that the issues that get addressed in labor negotiations are the ones that are advocated by a champion at the table. The proposals and agreements that get ratified are largely based on the interests of the decision makers. And the decision makes, the people at the proverbial table, were men. They still are. And because it has been that way for so long, our brains have normalized to the idea that some of the most vital jobs in the world are unpaid. Why would you ever pay a woman to take care of her family? It’s just her duty.

And yet, in the ever closer scenario in which machines/AI/robots can perform an increasing percentage of the jobs, it is the feminine dominant, EQ heavy, social/emotional, touchy feely, hard to quantify, empathetic, loving kindness roles that are harder to program machines for. So many of the last remaining human jobs may be what we have always scoffed at as women’s work. (Imagine the implications this will have on gender wage parity!)

Despite economic and political conditions ushering women into the work force en masse decades ago, the structure of the system hasn’t been updated. We continue to witness the deterioration of the family unit as people attempt to do two full time jobs (and/or a plethora of gigs) — their “real job(s)” and their home job. This isn’t just negatively impacting women — it’s affecting whole families and communities, disparately so for the poor and POC. (Not to mention the modern day slavery happening in for-profit prisons). Society is suffering because our foundational systems are no longer reflective of the current reality. And rather than attempting the impossible, to turn back the clock by asking women and POC to quietly and politely return to their days of domestic indentured servitude, it’s worth considering how to compensate theses and other essential roles, so that people can add value to society by doing urgently needed work they are qualified for and willing to do (otherwise known as supply and demand), whether it is in the home or outside of it.

What would that even look like? How about these (overly simplistic, for the sake of brevity) principles for starters:

1. Things that add the most value to people, societies, and the earth should be the best compensated.

2. Things that add the least value and/or things that are harmful to people and society, should be the least compensated (or even penalized).

3. Anyone who performs a role that is valuable to society (a.k.a. works) should be compensated.

While this may be idealistic, we can at least view it as a guiding principle. And since it seems unlikely that we are going to come up with a pot of money over night to start paying all the homemakers, it’s worth considering small steps we can take to move in that direction. Some of you have blowing smoke out your ears (but to your credit have continued reading anyway, even if it is just to point out how wrong I am), so I’ll get to the point.

While we still lack appropriate data to say whether it would be effective or not, Basic Income is one approach to address this fundamental flaw in our economy. I know we have a better shot by promoting interests over positions, so let me be clear — I’m am not attached to the solution being Universal, or Basic, or Income. My interest is in ensuring that in our affluent society with tremendous wealth and resources, all people have food, shelter, medical care, education, and mental health support — not to mention opportunity to work, and to create purpose, meaning, and impact in their little corner of the world. (All of these things, by the way, can be beneficial for a thriving economy.)

And before you criticize me for being a communist and idealist, and spew your mistrust of lazy, couch-ridden sponges on society, let’s have a reality check. Before you spend the comments section listing all the reasons a Basic Income is a non-starter for economic reasons (not the topic of this post), consider that by 2030 the richest 1% is on track to own two thirds of all global wealth. And that corporate profits are soaring after having their taxes slashed (profits which for some strange reason are not trickling down). And that for many currently human roles, AI will be a more cost effective and efficient investment than human labor, so these companies (and their billionaire stakeholders) will have even greater profits at the expense of the workforce. Like the future, the money is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.

And while there are many potential pitfalls for the perceived panacea of UBI, right now it seems like one of our best options to test out. We are in a moment in which we can play with the levers. We can consider the parameters in a way that addresses the concerns people have. As a wise man once said, “Nothing is fucked, dude.” Yet.. anyway.

So what dials do we play with to test Basic Income out:

  • Who gets it? Should people have to do some sort of work? Work that isn’t currently compensated for?
  • How much is it? What are basic needs that should be covered?
  • Is it a flat rate? A negative tax? Are there bonuses for working?
  • Is there an income max?
  • Is it government funded? Business funded? Crypto funded? Funded by the 1%? A combination of all of the above?
  • How can we help people find meaningful work and motivation despite receiving a cash distribution?

Don’t tell me all the reasons things haven’t worked before, or how the current solutions won’t work in the future. If they won’t, what will? What other questions should we consider? How can we design for a better future? One where the market reflects the economic value of all work our society desperately needs performed, regardless of who is performing it (and where).