Mothers And Basic Income: The Case For An Urgent Intervention


The gender pay gap requires urgent attention, writes Dr Petra Bueskens. But there is a strong case to be made for the reality that mothers and single mothers should be at the front of the queue.*

Universal basic income – or #UBI – has been gaining traction in recent years as a utopian alternative to the punitive, stigmatising and declining welfare state in neo-liberal societies. The confluence of increased automation, declining wages and under-employment has been seized by the Left as a powerful reason for the establishment of a basic income (although interestingly, the UBI has always had supporters on the Right who want to do away with big government).

For women as mothers, however, the UBI opens up the possibility of a hitherto unseen equality that includes freedom from dependence on a male wage.


What is a basic income?

A basic income is a sum of money sufficient to live on, paid to all citizens unconditionally by the government. Basic income scholar Phillipe Van Parijs defines it as “an income paid by a political community to all its members on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement”.

There are other definitions, including a basic income that operates as a supplement but is insufficient to live on, also called a ‘non-liveable basic income’; a negative income tax whereby all those who earn below a minimum threshold are reimbursed by the government (up to a minimum standard); and basic capital, sometimes referred to as stakeholding, which is a lump sum paid at the onset of adulthood.

I am concerned here with the first definition – that is a regular income paid to all citizens without conditions at a frugal but functional standard. This is also referred to as a Basic Income Guarantee or BIG.


Why a basic income?

UBI research and commentary has gained momentum over the last decade with an increasing focus on the social problems associated with declining employment resulting from automation and digitisation (think tram conductors and bank tellers); the declining welfare state resulting from neoliberal austerity policies – the so-called ‘welfare to workfare’ regimes; and as a result of increasing income disparity in late capitalism.

For example, in Australia over the past 15 years, incomes of the top 10 per cent have grown 13 per cent higher than the bottom 90 per cent, while incomes of the top 1 per cent have grown 42 per cent higher.

Former Greek finance minister and economics professor, Yanis Varoufakis argues, somewhat polemically, that ‘capitalism died in 2008’ and was replaced with what he calls ‘bankruptocracy’– a system in which financialisation trumps labour deflating wages and undermines extant systems of social welfare (or, in other words, the conventional forms of redistributing income).

He notes that the original bargain struck between capital and labour altered after the financial crisis of 2008 and that the working class – a broad term that ultimately includes anyone who works for wages – no longer has the capacity to insure itself, producing a situation of deep economic precarity.

Wage-labourers have, increasingly, to accept the parsimonious terms of capitalism, generating the well-known situation of falling wages (relative to profits), less job-security and a widening income gap. As political theorist Kathi Weeks says, “Today’s ‘jobless recovery’ is perhaps the most obvious sign that the wage system is not working.” While profits are increasing, jobs and wages are not keeping apace and are indeed falling.

Australian wages figures.
United States wage figures
United States wage figures

 This divergence, also referred to as the ‘productivity wedge’, shows the growing gap between productivity and wages (or GDP and wages) and, in turn, the monopolisation of profits by the 10 per cent and, more still, by the 1 per cent. Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of the neo-liberal era has been the divergence between real wages growth and productivity growth.

Automation and digitisation will greatly exacerbate this process in the coming decades leading to further massive job losses.

Australia is no exception to this pattern. According to the Committee for Economic Development Australia (CEDA)’s 2015 research report, Australia’s Future Workforce – somewhat ominously titled with a question mark – we are on the cusp of a ‘very different industrial revolution’.

Indeed, according to CEDA’s Chief Executive Professor Stephen Martin, “More than five million jobs, almost 40 per cent of jobs that exist today, have a moderate to high likelihood of disappearing in the next 10 to 15 years”. While “…in some parts of rural and regional Australia there is a high likelihood of job losses being over 60 per cent”.

UBI is proposed as a utopian alternative to this confluence of technological, economic and social change because it offers a viable alternative for the redistribution of wealth; something the nexus of capitalism, waged labour and the (declining) welfare state is no longer achieving.

Basic income has become a very hot topic over the last year with a number of pilot programs being developed in Finland, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, and California, a referendum in Switzerland, a lengthy parliamentary debate on the topic in France (resulting in this recent report), a parliamentary report in Australia as well as a discussion paper by Australian think-tank the Greens Institute. In a 2016 report titled The Australian productivity commission stated that,

While Australia’s tax and transfer system will continue to play a role in redistributing income, in the longer term, governments may need to evaluate the merits of more radical policies, including policies such as a universal basic income.

What I find interesting immersing myself in the basic income literature – including academic and journalistic articles alike – is the assumption that this precarious access to employment is something new.

Certainly, on a mass scale it is for most (though not all) men and the spectre of middle class professionals losing their jobs – something already happening in fields like journalism and academia and likely in the health sector next – a very significant social and economic change; but for all but the most privileged women this economic precarity is the historical and contemporaneous norm.

While a full-time, well-paid job over a lifetime is the route to economic security, notwithstanding the rhetoric of gender equality, very few women have ever had such jobs.

So, my argument isn’t just that basic income is the only viable macro-economic answer to increasing economic inequality – specifically, the decline of full-time, secure jobs – but that it is a crucial answer to the as yet unresolved issue of gender justice under capitalism.


Basic income and mothers

While I support a UBI for everyone – that is, I support the ‘U’ in ‘UBI’ – why, you may ask, am I singling out mothers in particular?

I think it is important to identify the specificity of mothers in this debate, given both the tendency to ignore the centrality of gender justice and, the extent to which when gender is centred motherhood is glossed over. My view is we need to make the socio-economic impact of becoming a mother and of mothering work explicit.

But first, a word on the ‘standard female biography’: one of the reasons a ‘matricentric feminism’ – to use Andrea O’Reilly’s excellent term – is required is that we can no longer conflate the categories of mother and woman given delayed and declining fertility, and the increasing numbers of childless women.

Women who are not mothers, not-yet mothers, or long past actively mothering dependent children are all in quite different socio-economic positions (although of course the structural effects of mothering last a lifetime). It’s not that gender doesn’t matter; it’s just that motherhood matters more.


Gender Pay Gap slide


We can look at this more demographically variegated landscape by looking at the gender pay gap, and then looking at how motherhood impacts this.

In Australia, women’s full-time wages were 82.8 per cent of men’s, with a wage gap of 17.2 per cent. The gender pay gap has grown over the last decade from 14.9 per cent in 2004, to a record high of 18.8 per cent in February 2015 before falling slightly again in 2016.

As a result women are earning less on average compared to men than they were 20 years ago!

However, this figure is calculated without including overtime and bonuses, which substantially increase men’s wages, or part-time, which substantially decreases women’s wages. In other words, ‘83 cents in the dollar’ substantially overstates wage parity.

When this difference is factored in, the pay gap widens to just over 30 per cent. And in the ‘prime childrearing years’ between ages 35-44, this gap widens to nearly 40 per cent.

A more realistic figure is gained by looking at full-time versus part-time earnings, as well as average male and female earnings directly. Here we see the pay gap more clearly.

For example, in 2016, average weekly earnings were $1,727.40 for male employees and $1,010.20 for female employees (a difference of close to $720 per week). However, most mothers work part-time which exacerbates this pay gap yet again.

If we consider full-time and part-time work, the wage disparity widens further: average weekly full-time earnings were $1,727.40 for full-time male employees and $633.60 for part-time female employees; now we have a gap of over $1100 per week!

Close to half of all Australian women work part-time in 2015-16 – 44 per cent (double the OECD average). However, this figure rises to 62 per cent for mothers with a child under 5, and almost 84 per cent for those with a child under 2.

Close to 40 per cent of all mothers work part-time regardless of the age of the child, while only 25 per cent worked full-time.

The remainder, it needs to be remembered, were out of the workforce altogether. As the ABS put it, “Reflecting the age when women are likely to be having children (and taking a major role in child care), women aged 25-44 years are more than two and a half times as likely as men their age to be out of the labour force.”

Age of youngest child is a key predictor of women’s labour force participation, although it has almost no bearing on men’s labour force participation and when it does it is in the opposite direction: fathers of younger children typically undertake more paid work.

Moreover, a quarter of all female employees work casually and their average weekly earnings were just $471.40.

Think about that – a quarter of all working women earn less than $500 a week! These days that barely covers the rent, let alone food, bills, educational and commuting costs.

Occupational segregation and motherhood wage penalties also kick in to this mix. If we look at labour force participation we see that coupled mothers have higher rates of participation than single mothers given the additional support they receive with childcare and income.

As the government report, ‘Parenting, Work and the Gender Pay Gap’ points out,

Economists have reported that raising children accounts for a 17 per cent loss in lifetime wages for women. Many women move into ‘mother-friendly’ occupations when they have children. These occupations may be lower-paid than the work a mother may have done prior to having a child, and often do not reflect the woman’s abilities, education level or work experience (‘human capital’).

Given the average full-time male wage is significantly higher than the average female wage and, moreover, that women carry the overwhelming share of unpaid care and domestic work and thus typically work part-time in their key childrearing years – and, we should add, fully a quarter do not work at all! – this is not simply a matter of two incomes being better than one (which is of course true), it is that access to a share of male monopolised wealth – that is, to put in in stark terms, access to a husband – is essential for mothers to avoid poverty.

I’m not talking about the small number of high-earning, professional mothers, but the great majority of women. In broad terms, the closer we are to mothering dependent children, including especially infants and pre-schoolers, and the further we are from access to a male wage, the poorer we are as women.

Never married single mothers with dependent children are the worst off and it moves progressively from there with young, educated, urban, never-married, childless women in fact outstripping average male wages. This contrast gives us a sense of the variegated nature of women’s socio-economic position and again highlights that mothers are a distinct group and, more fundamentally, that the life course transitions of marriage and motherhood continue to negatively affect women’s (independent) socio-economic status.

As a recent government report, Parenting, Work and the Gender Pay Gap put it,

Women’s disjointed career trajectories are mirrored in the way the gender pay gap changes over the life course.

The gender pay gap exists from first entry to the workforce and increases substantially during the years of childbirth and childrearing, a time when many women have reduced their engagement with paid employment to take on family care work.

The gap then stabilises and narrows slightly from mid-life, when many women increase their paid work and sometimes develop new careers after their children have grown up. The pay gap narrows further in the years leading up to retirement with a substantial drop during retirement when men’s income is usually reduced.

So, often when we’re talking about women’s lower labour force participation and lower earnings, we’re actually talking about mothers’ lower labour force participation and lower earnings and, more specifically again, we’re talking about mothers with dependent children; although the lasting effects of caring labour means women across the spectrum have reduced earnings, assets and retirement savings if they have mothered.

To highlight this point, Australian sociologist and time use scholar Professor Lyn Craig has shown that many of the socio-economic disadvantages affecting women are, in fact, specific to mothers. As she says,

An implication of this is that the marker of the most extreme difference in life opportunities between men and women may not be gender itself, but gender combined with parenthood. That is, childless women may experience less inequity than women who become mothers.

Another important reason we need to differentiate mothers from women is that over the last 40 years, the standard female biography has changed significantly. Whereas once adulthood was by and large synonymous with marriage and motherhood for women, on average women now have a long stretch of adulthood – from the late teens to around age 30 – before they have a first child.

For educated and/or unpartnered women the birth of a first child is often later again into the 30s, and sometimes up to age 40. Moreover, while only around 10 per cent of women did not become mothers in the mid and later twentieth century, this has now risen to 24 per cent. So, not all women are mothers, and many women experience a large chunk of adulthood before they become mothers and after they are actively mothering dependent children.

So, to clarify my point, there are structural and individual injustices that are specific to mothering dependent children including an unequal division of domestic labour, unequal access to jobs given the unpaid work load at home, employment built on an implicit breadwinner model that is incompatible with parenting (including school hours, school holidays, sick kids and the like), discrimination in the workplace and, in the event of unemployment and/or divorce, an increasingly punitive welfare state and a high risk of poverty.

Single mothers and their children make up the bulk of those under the poverty line in the western world. In Australia, of all family groups, single parents constitute the largest single group of those living in poverty (proportionally).

Marriage is no longer the safety net (or gilded cage) it once was, with just over 30 per cent of marriages ending in divorce in Australia and predicted to rise to 45 per cent in the coming decades.

Additionally fewer people are entering into marriages and cohabiting relationships have even higher rate of relational breakdown than marriages.

This means a large and growing number of women who are mothering children – the next generation no less – are caught in this literal economic no-man’s land without adequate access to waged employment, a breadwinner husband or welfare. I am not suggesting that access to a husband is a right; I am suggesting that the liberal dissolution of the institution of marriage has not been followed with any viable economic alternatives.

Mothers undertake the bulk of unpaid care work, without which our society would cease to function. To turn this around: is it acceptable that as a society we free-load on this care?

Mothers’ economic autonomy – that is the very foundation of their citizenship and their liberty – is undermined by the extant intersection of the institutions of marriage, employment and welfare. It is on this basis that I am identifying mothers, and more still single mothers, as a specific socio-economic and political group in urgent need of basic income. This is a human rights crisis given that lone parent families are one of the fastest growing family forms in western societies and, moreover, that women head 80-90 per cent of these families.

Unlike the contemporary issues put forward for basic income – namely, mass unemployment from automation and digitisation – the issues facing mothers are not new.

Indeed they have been with us since the very inception of capitalism and the waged-labour system. Moreover, they are among the most compelling given that women and their dependents comprise the majority of the poor.

With the liberalisation of markets and marriage, a large and growing body of women and children are being left out of the social contract. Basic income is the critical policy answer to this problem.

* An edited version of this article was presented at the recent People, Place and Privilege conference 2017.

Dr Petra Bueskens is an Honorary Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne, a psychotherapist in private practice, and a freelance opinion writer. Her books include Modern Motherhood and Women’s Dual Identities: Rewriting the Sexual Contract (Routledge 2018), the edited volume Motherhood and Psychoanalysis: Clinical, Sociological and Feminist Perspectives (Demeter, 2014), and two forthcoming edited volumes Nancy Chodorow: The Reproduction of Mothering: Forty Years On with Tanya Cassidy and Australian Mothering: Historical and Sociological Perspectives with Carla Pascoe Leahy (Palgrave, 2019). Her opinion pieces have appeared in New Matilda, The Conversation, The Huffington Post, Arena Magazine and more.