What a Basic Income Would Mean to Domestic Workers

“A basic income can prevent a temporary moment of need from becoming a long-term crisis.”

Ai-jen Poo is the Executive Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, recipient of the MacArthur Genius grant and Co-director of Caring Across Generations. The following is adapted from a Jan. 27, 2017 interview on the Basic Income Podcast by Owen Poindexter and Jim Pugh.

Tell us about the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the work you do there.

My work is alongside the millions of workers, mostly women, who go to work every day in our homes. They care for some of the most important parts of our lives: our kids, our aging loved ones, and our homes, and they make it possible for millions of us to go to work every day knowing that our families are in good hands. Our organization is about making sure that this work is valued, respected and protected, that these are good jobs with family-sustaining incomes and in which one generation can do better than the next.

About five years ago, we started realizing that this workforce is growing at an incredibly rapid pace. The baby boom generation is aging, with four million people per year turning 70, and living longer than ever before. The millennial generation is also starting to have families of their own, having four million babies per year. So, we suddenly need more care than ever before and therefore a stronger caregiving workforce. Now that we’ve launched Caring Across Generations, we need to create the kind of solutions that allow for families to afford and have access to good care while making sure that the workforce that provides that care has respect and the kinds of quality jobs that they deserve.

Photo credit: James Hamilton for UDW Homecare Providers Union

Can you tell us a bit about some of the biggest challenges that are facing domestic workers today?

Still, in the 21st century, we have a hard time treating this work as real work. It’s often referred to as ‘help’ or ‘companionship,’ and so this work remains in the shadows rather than being seen as a real profession for millions of people. That limits our ability to get access to the kinds of training and benefits and security that we deserve and it certainly is reflected in wages. The annual median income for a healthcare worker is $13,000 per year. That is so far from a family-sustaining wage. These are millions of workers who are working incredibly hard, doing incredibly important work, and earning poverty wages.

Five years ago, we launched Caring Across Generations to bring seniors and people with disabilities together with family caregivers to say we need a whole new investment in caregiving in this country. We need to help people to afford care, because it’s quite expensive, and to allow for these jobs to be really good jobs. Right now, we’re fighting for universal family care in Maine and Michigan, which essentially the idea that every single working family should have access to economic support to afford childcare and elder care and paid family leave. We should enable everyone to go to work and reach their full potential without having to make this horrible false choice between work and family.

Perhaps along those lines you signed the belief statement for the Economic Security Project saying that we should explore basic income to guarantee economic security for all people. What motivated that decision?

I am really passionate about the idea that most of the policies and systems that enable our democracy and our economy to work properly, were born of a very different age. So much has changed about the way that we live and work in this country. I think we need a new framework and we need to rethink our social contract at its core to be reflective of the realities facing working families today in this country. I believe it entails a new set of universal rights.

Social insurance programs like unemployment were created at a time when people had stable long term employment and intermittent periods of unemployment. Today, in more and more places, what we’re seeing is periods of long-term unemployment and intermittent or temporary employment. So, we need a different safety net and a different framework for meeting those needs. It is now clear that we’ll never get to gender equality in the workforce, and we’ll never get to a place where men and women can really realize their potential in our economy, if they’re constantly being forced to make impossible choices between caring for the people they love or going to work. Universal basic income, universal family care, and a new framework for workers to have a voice, these are all pillars that need to be redesigned to fit today’s economy.

In the 1920s and 1930s, manufacturing jobs were dangerous, low paid, precarious jobs and we collectively as a country transformed those into good jobs with a pathway to real economic security and stability. Our task of the 21st century is to look at low-wage service jobs like care jobs and make the same transformation happen. We’ve done it before and we can do it again.

Can you tell us a bit more about what impact you think a universal basic income might have on domestic work?

We live in such insecure economic times. More and more workers are dealing with jobs that are temporary, part time, or are independent contractors, so there’s much less stable long term employment. You’re really living paycheck to paycheck and struggling, or you’re on the brink where anything could go wrong — a car accident, a stroke in the family — and trigger a spider web of economic insecurity and poverty that’s incredibly difficult to escape. A basic income can prevent a temporary moment of need from becoming a long-term crisis.

You mentioned that universal basic income would serve as one pillar in a larger new social contract that we could be moving towards. Can you tell us a little bit more about what else would be part of that contract and also how you’re thinking strategically about moving towards it?

I think that universal basic income, portable benefits, and universal family care — this idea that every single working family would have some economic support to afford childcare, elder care and paid leave when they need it to care for their families — are three ideas that deserve some oxygen and some real resources behind demonstration projects. They’re at the level of ambition that I think is appropriate. We’ve got some major challenges in this country, with unprecedented levels of inequality, and even in this period of political polarization and change, it is important that we preserve the space for these big bold ideas. I also think a really important piece of this is going to be giving a voice to working people. We don’t have everything figured out, but we need to start building from the ground up, which is why I’m really excited to be working with the Economic Security Project.