The UK government’s financial response to the economic woes created by coronavirus pandemic is exceptional, especially for a Conservative government, and unprecedented. However, in using the existing labour and organisational structures there are so many holes through which the most vulnerable can fall, and favours the economic wellbeing of companies rather than the economic wellbeing of people. An emergency basic income is a fairer, faster policy that avoids these pitfalls, while also saving bureaucratic time and money. A basic income provides for all people, backed by the understanding that all people are valued and worth helping.
Without addressing structural inequalities in its response to the virus, the government risks further entrenching unfair norms and adding to the burdens based on age, employment, ability, race, and gender. Fundamentally, a basic income offers financial freedom outside of existing employment norms and structures. This will be felt most strongly by women, who earn less, are more likely to work part time or are self-employed for flexibility, and who shoulder most of the caring burden. Insofar as the wider policy impacts of coronavirus go, this emergency will hit women harder, but a basic income could relieve much of that additional pressure and allow women to perform the essential (and unpaid) labour their typically perform.
Firstly, housework and caring responsibilities – that informal, unpaid labour – overwhelmingly fall to women. Lockdown is, so far, the only reliable way of limiting the spread of coronavirus, and the government is right to enforce this. With people kept in their homes all day, the housework increases and impacts women’s ability to work from home, especially if they earn less than a male partner (as in the majority of cases). This effect is exacerbated with children home from school: women are more likely to be the primary caregivers and makeshift teachers for the same reasons. A basic income would give women greater freedom to undertake such unpaid work without the financial implications. Or further, having a basic income would allow mothers to outsource certain chores – eg. paying for online tuition, order food to the house – thereby freeing up their time to pursue paid work or other roles.
Secondly, but related to the above, women make up the greater proportion of people caring for others beyond their home, both formally and informally. Of the essential workers still supported by the government to keep working outside of home, NHS workers are at the frontline, most exposed to coronavirus and therefore taking the brunt of the risk. The NHS workforce is 77% female. In addition, the government have promoted a NHS volunteer force, to support other caring elements of coronavirus policy while NHS professionals are busy coping with the clinical treatment of the virus. This would be a nationwide effort similar to the thousands of community support groups that have sprung up across the country over the last few weeks, making sure that the vulnerable have access to medical supplies, groceries, and mental health support. Though statistics on the gender breakdown of these volunteers are yet unpublished, it seems likely (given the gendered nature of unpaid care work) that these are overwhelmingly women. Certainly, my area’s ‘Corona Support’ group in Somerset consists entirely of women. Basic income – regardless of previous employment, current employment, unemployment – allows women to pursue these roles, deemed so essential by government, without fear of financial backlash.
Thirdly, as we’ve seen through the staggered response of countries’ lockdowns globally, keeping people at home has severe repercussions for victims of domestic violence, again overwhelmingly women. Not only are they in close contact with the perpetrator for more of the day, there are further barriers to leaving the house, especially given likely loss of earnings in the household. The UK government has stated that domestic refuge centres have been kept open during this crisis. But the ability to get out of an abusive home is impacted by financial means – if a violent perpetrator is the only source of income for a family and controls all cash flows, how can a woman take her children and run? Emergency basic income is – of course – not a solution to this. But it can offer a degree of freedom that would not otherwise be there in these abnormal circumstances, removing one more barrier to leaving for victims of domestic violence.
Finally, emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic require abnormal policies and powers, which in turn create an abnormal set of norms. This has been demonstrated widely on social media, with people talking about not getting dressed daily, eating crisps for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and sleeping at strange hours. But light-hearted humour aside, emergency situations often deepen existing inequalities as people give up the struggles that are non-essential to community survival. We need policies that actively address the imbalanced impacts that men and women face, to try to address gender inequality, rather than ignore and deepen it.
Emergency basic income is not a cure all, but it has several advantages over the current package of financial assistance that the UK government has released. Primarily, that it puts money – and therefore a degree of financial freedom – directly into the pockets of people, regardless of their income in normal times. For women, who are more likely to work part time and earn less, who have greater caring responsibilities and be in the frontline of coronavirus, and who are more likely to be trapped in violent domestic situations, this is a far greater policy option.