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I am largely in agreement with Brishen Rogers’s discussion of the virtues and limits of basic income. I am persuaded that a basic income would be insufficient for economic justice, that it needs to be joined with a more robust set of public benefits, greater state regulation of labor markets and work conditions, and enhanced bargaining power for workers. I also agree that the most persuasive case for basic income is based on both freedom and fairness—liberty and equality. Rogers does not, however, explore how a basic income might advance the cause of racial justice. Here, as with much else, I think we can learn from Martin Luther King, Jr., who insisted in Stride Toward Freedom (1958) that economic injustice and racial injustice are “inseparable twins.”
Basic income would empower marginalized black workers by enabling them to refuse demeaning, insecure, exploitative jobs.
After the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965), King turned his attention to the plight of the ghetto poor—that segment of the black poor who, because of past and ongoing racial and economic injustices, are confined to segregated and deeply disadvantaged metropolitan neighborhoods. Indeed, he moved with his family to a ghetto on the west side of Chicago. He called for a civil rights–labor alliance that fused the traditional antiracist aims of the black freedom struggle with the economic egalitarian goals of the labor movement. King supported unconditional basic income for the poor as part of a “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged.” Such a measure was necessary, he thought, because of the negative impact automation was having on the employment prospects of ordinary wage laborers and because of the continuing economic marginalization of black urban poor. By extending King’s vision to current realities and opting for basic income over means-tested welfare, we can see how basic income could reduce the suffering of today’s black poor. In particular, basic income could significantly mitigate the burdens of ghettoization and mass incarceration.
One of the virtues of basic income that Rogers highlights is how it would sever the link between work and welfare. This would, by itself, advance the cause of racial justice. The linking of work and welfare has a long tradition in American culture and politics. Among both conservatives and liberals, work is often seen as a duty and as an indispensable basis for personal dignity. Joblessness, as a result, has become an influential explanation for why ghettos persist: the fact that so many among the ghetto poor do not work regularly, proponents of the explanation argue, accounts for why people in these communities often remain poor. Some advocates of this view maintain that joblessness has negative ramifications beyond mere income disadvantage. For instance, joblessness is said to increase crime and juvenile delinquency, to encourage welfare dependency and single-mother households, to undermine self-esteem, and to foster a self-defeating ghetto subculture.
Policymakers have responded by ending welfare as an entitlement, replacing it with strict time limits and work requirements for benefit eligibility, and cracking down on urban crime, and especially on the drug trade, pushing for long prison terms and aggressive enforcement measures. The idea is to encourage work in the licit economy by changing the incentive structure. But implicit in this policy response is the assumption that the black urban poor’s reasons for refusing to work are insufficient. This assumption is widely held, quite old, and sometimes accepted by respected black leaders. But while I would not deny that high jobless rates in ghettos are worrisome and have far-reaching consequences, it does not follow that inducing or mandating work is the right solution to the problem of ghetto poverty. Indeed, many of the black urban poor have sufficient reason to refuse to work.
One of the basic problems with the current work-welfare regime is this: many of the ghetto poor who have submitted to its requirements nevertheless remain poor. They simply become part of the working poor, often serving the private needs of the well-off—performing the roles of maids, nannies, dishwashers, maintenance workers, and so on. Others fall back into poverty because of recessions and economic restructuring. And because many of the schools available to the ghetto poor are so substandard, they do not allow for opportunities to develop marketable skills, limiting upward mobility. Thus, when work requirements do not allow for skills enhancement or promotion to better paid positions, these requirements are reasonably interpreted as attempts by the affluent to profit by extracting burdensome and unrewarding labor from the weak and vulnerable.
Under these circumstances, mandating work to receive welfare benefits is disempowering—it ensures that the ghetto poor are a permanently exploitable class. To submit to an unjust and exploitative regime that stigmatizes and conveys contempt for poor black people is, for some at least, a fate worse than the ghetto. Many descendants of slaves embrace the imperative to resist race-based oppression, particularly those forms that are similar or related to past racial injustices. Blacks are therefore suspicious of and often bristle at any social arrangement that has the look or feel of race-based servitude. Perhaps some do not accept the jobs available because they believe that the basic structure of U.S. society is deeply unfair, and thus, on grounds of justice and self-respect, refuse to accommodate themselves to their low position in this racially and economically stratified social order.
The ghetto poor have grounds to refuse work if their fellow citizens have erected a work regime because of racism.
Poor black mothers, for example, are often forced to accept employment in order to receive much-needed benefits. But the work available to them is often domestic service in the homes of affluent white families. By refusing this kind of work, they are resisting the ideological image of the mammy—the self-sacrificing, deferential, faithful, and obedient house servant—and its associated social roles. As Patricia Hill Collins has argued, a lot of the work in the contemporary service industry—preparing and serving food in restaurants, janitorial jobs and hotel housekeeping, and looking after kids in childcare centers—is reminiscent of traditional domestic service.
The symbolic meaning of such an arrangement (regardless of the conscious intent of those who support the work regime) is, I think, a sufficient reason for the most vulnerable and powerless segment of the black population to be defiant in the face of its demands. Apprehending the symbolic meaning of this work-welfare regime, some among the ghetto poor may (if they are able to) reject it as insulting.
There is considerable evidence that some Americans oppose welfare entitlement programs because they are prejudiced against blacks, with whom such programs are generally associated. A longstanding and deeply offensive stereotype about blacks is that they are lazy. The ghetto poor would also have grounds to refuse work, then, if they have a justified belief that their fellow citizens have erected a work regime because of racism, whether as a means to punish shiftlessness or as a paternalistic effort to correct habits of indolence.
High-poverty neighborhoods with few good employment options lead some residents, especially those unemployed for long periods, to consider securing income through unlawful means. Ghetto poverty creates desperation and feelings of shame, and some, seeking to escape the weight of their social conditions, resort to crime. As a result, many who reside in ghetto neighborhoods have been incarcerated. Upon release their felony records make it difficult for them to find work or housing, as it is not illegal to deny a person a job or an apartment because they have been convicted of a felony. Most convicted felons were already disadvantaged by their limited skills, low educational achievement, and lack of work experience, and they are not eligible for many forms of public assistance. The formerly incarcerated are thus among the worst off in ghetto neighborhoods. Families who depend on them for support are also made worse off by high incarceration rates and the treatment of ex-convicts.
Rogers rightly worries that if convicted felons were to be ineligible for basic income, they would likely become a permanent laboring underclass, forever stigmatized, exploited, and poor. But given the employment discrimination they face (particularly if they are black), many would turn, not to menial labor, but back to crime and so likely end up re-incarcerated, where a for-profit prison might still exploit their labor.
Given the history of slavery and Jim Crow—three and a half centuries of gross and far-reaching injustices—no one can plausibly argue that the current, racially skewed distribution of resources is entirely the result of just appropriations and fair market exchanges. Nothing approaching adequate reparations for slavery or Jim Crow have been offered to the descendants of slaves or the victims of the segregation regime. Given that contemporary ghetto poverty is plausibly explained, at least in part, by historical injustices in appropriation and transfer (what some term structural racism), it is far from clear that welfare conditional on work or the denial of public benefits to former felons is justifiable.
Therefore one of the strengths of basic income is that it would empower marginalized black workers by enabling them to refuse demeaning, insecure, exploitative, and low-paying jobs. They could do so without having to live in degrading forms of poverty and without having to bear the risks of the underground economy. Basic income would deal a real blow to ghettoization and mass incarceration. It would not solve all problems of racial or economic injustice. But any civil rights–labor alliance should seriously consider fighting for it.
Each week, another magazine, book, or think tank sketches a dystopian near-future in which automation renders workers unnecessary. Is a basic income the solution?
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