One of the first quotes I’d ever heard about feminism was the now-ubiquitous: “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” Concise, practical, and obvious only once stated.
I feel very much the same way about Universal Basic Income. Anti-poverty work is the radical notion it should not be unaffordable to live.
No one asked to be here. No one sent a text from the pre-existence ether to their future-mother saying, “All right, time to deposit me into this capitalist, pre-apocalyptic descent into biospheric and social collapse. Can’t wait to be told that flipping burgers is a bottom-of-the-barrel job right up until I’m the only one who’ll do it. Let me at it.”
And yet, here we are. Corporations extracting labour from our bodies in the same gluttonous, relentless way they extract resources from the earth. Corporations spending tens of thousands of dollars on prime-time commercials to ‘thank’ their workers, all the while suppressing union talk and refusing to increase wages or implement appropriate safety measures for their staff.
When we are motionless, as we’ve been forced to be, suddenly all this hypocrisy, which usually moves too quickly to place a finger on, is right before our eyes. The motives of the rich, elite, and powerful have been laid bare, and it is an ugly and frightening scene.
Minimum wage—when you’re paid this, you are aware that, if it were legal, your boss would pay you even less. Yet, this number does not and can not describe your value. That is intrinsic and no human forces can alter it. The number just describes a very cold calculation: it’s the amount that keeps you from thinking of anything else, not a single thing beyond survival. It’s the bare minimum wage that (usually) keeps you alive in Ontario.
Why should we have to earn a living? We did not consent to this, did not sign a contract agreeing to maintain this broken system. We were brought into a world replete with scarcity—worse, artificial scarcity. Purposeful scarcity, implemented by the rich to widen the gap between us and maintain control. If something is necessary to keep you alive, it should be free. It should be provided, without guilt, without strings, without judgement. Food, water, shelter, healthcare. These are the very basics of survival, the lowest bar to meet.
That is what living in a society is all about. There are no lone wolves, no islands. We take care of each other because we are each valuable and because we, in turn, might need care. It is sick and senseless to pretend that menial, unthanked, and dangerous labour contains the meaning of life. How many Marie Curies worked their fingers to the bone doing laundry for a living; how many Roberta Bondars and Nelly McClungs have we lost to overnight shifts at the pizza place? How many brilliant minds have dreamt up another way but were too exhausted to fight?
Of course, laundry needs to be done and pizza delivered. One of the most boring arguments I see against a universal basic income is the assertion that if everyone has their basic financial needs met, no one will work.
I would. I find meaning in all my jobs, in fact. They provide mental stimulation, opportunities for growth, a chance to help others, a sense of accomplishment, exposure to different attitudes and cultures, feedback from my community and beyond, socialization with co-workers, and a change of scenery. A good job will do much of that. But would I want them to look exactly as they do now? Well, no. Maybe there wouldn’t be quite so many hours or there’d be more time off between shifts. Maybe we could double-staff more frequently, so we can keep learning from each other and so we don’t have to divide our focus as much. If I had a guaranteed income, I would still work—but I would also have more leverage to make positive changes, for staff and clients, because I wouldn’t be held hostage by financial insecurity.
Consider your own job. Do you like it? Dare I ask, do you love it? Could you have done so, if certain financial-based wrongs were righted? If your operating budget was boosted the way you know it needs to be, if you could get more training in things you feel unsure about, if you could have more time away to heal from the demands of your position, and come back renewed—then, could you love your job?
Or did you really not like it, or even hate it? Are you relieved that you don’t have to go there right now, or are you dreading the fact that you do?
Here’s what I’ve learned from my time at the shelter. My favourite question to ask women when I get to know them is, “What would you do if you didn’t have to worry about money?”
There’s surprised laughter—some have never even considered this before. Some speak lovingly of their hobby or passion. “I’d start a rescue shelter for animals” is one common refrain, and “I’d spend more time on my art”. Some wish they could help other women in the way the shelter supported them. Almost as a rule, women say they would dedicate more time to caring for elders, young people with disabilities, working with marginalized communities, even educating abusive men. Some just want to crochet sweaters all day while watching Jeopardy! and waiting for their bread to bake.
You see, people want to work. Everything described above is work. Our society depends on these actions, and some people love doing them.
But they want that work to mean something. They want to be appreciated, seen, kept safe, have competent leadership, be compensated fairly, and they want to be given the choice. We all do. The garbage will still get picked up and the doctors will still clock in. But we’d all do it with the security to pursue that which makes us happiest. To follow our dreams.
If that sounds over the top to you, I fear you’ve fallen for the propaganda. The very convenient line that you’re just here on this planet in this unfathomably immense and unknown universe in order to produce labour, consume material items, and die. That’s just the way it is, right?
Nope. Humans created this broken, oppressive system. And anything humans invent, humans can discard. We have a wealth of data at our fingertips that was never available to us before. We hear directly the rallying cries across the globe for a new, better way. There’s a connectivity, an unshakeable sense of justice that bonds us—again and again, systems try to divide the people, pit us against each other, play up false camaraderie with the one per cent, trying to make us forget we are infinitely closer to being homeless than having an income like Jeff Bezos.
No one individual earns a billion dollars. That money is earned by the labour force and it should stay with them.
With all this talk of minimum wage, I propose a maximum wage. Say, everyone—yes, everyone—gets paid between $50 and $100 per hour of labour performed, no more or less, and the exact amount is determined by the difficulty of the position, health risks involved, potential for vicarious trauma, etc. If you want more money, just work more hours—but you still have the same twenty-four hours in a day that I do. We both get a basic income, a thriving income, simply for existing as human beings on this planet. Maybe you want to work 80 hours a week to top up your income—maybe I don’t want to work that way and just want to write and learn to play ukulele. #yolo
And, remember, this is a bridge, not a destination. Money is a human delusion, a shared agreement that shatters when any real focus is placed on it. I don’t actually believe we need money as a concept at all in order to thrive as a species. Certainly not as the twisted, extortive flexion of power it is today. I think we can do better.
Really take the time, after you read this, to imagine what you would do if all your needs were met and you had a security net of a guaranteed income. If your answer isn’t “I’d do exactly what I’m doing now and I’d love it” then I would suggest you support this untangling of mangled priorities that capitalism necessitates and see what we are really capable of.
Come on. You’ve earned it.
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Kathleen May is a writer, speaker, and activist. Her column, She Speaks, has appeared in the Huntsville Doppler since 2018. Her work in our community includes co-founding the long-running Huntsville Women’s Group, volunteering with Muskoka Parry Sound Sexual Assault Services, and her role as a front-line counsellor at the women’s shelter. Kathleen is a 2018 Woman of Distinction for Social Activism and Community Development. She was longlisted for the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize, short-listed for the 2019 CBC Nonfiction Prize, and received the Best Author award for her 2018 submission at the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a fundraiser for literacy services. When she isn’t writing, she’s designing a tiny house which she intends to be the impetus for a sustainable women’s land co-operative in Muskoka.