TOP 2019-03-28

A Basic Income for Children

Childcare, and care work in general, is frequently ignored or sidelined in many economic theories. Noting its absence from Marxism, for example, Silvia Federici presents an analysis of the household as a kind of factory, in which women produce and reproduce the commodity labour power - in the form of children who are destined to become future wage workers - but aren’t paid for doing so[1].

Even when they formally enter the labour market, parents (most often, mothers) end up with the double burden of paid work and care work to juggle at the same time. Just paying someone else to do the care work does not solve the issue, since this has to be deducted from their earnings. Consequently there is an incentive to undervalue care work performed by others so that parents can make sure it actually pays to go out to work at all. In many countries, care for dependants has been offloaded onto migrant workers - almost always women - who work in the precarious and informal sector for little pay. Emancipation then becomes a privilege reserved mostly for white middle class women, at the expense of poorer migrant women.

In the ‘wages for housework’ campaign of the 1970s, child-raising was seen as a service performed on behalf of society, creating the labour market’s next generation of recruits. Seen like this, it seems natural that the state should compensate parents for this important task. An alternative perspective sees children more like pets or potted plants - as commodities that parents choose to have for their own pleasure. Seen this way it seems natural that parents should pay for them out of their own pocket.

What both of these perspectives lack is any recognition of the third party that is involved in the dispute. Beyond the parents and the state, there is a child. If the child is a commodity that parents are expected to pay for, then the outcome for the child will depend crucially on the unequal fortunes - and skills - of their unchosen parents. But the ‘wages for housework’ model is also flawed.

In any childcare situation there are two groups whose needs must be met - that of the children and that of their caregivers. While the child has no income of their own, both groups have to live on the wages of one. Those countries that pay child benefit don’t pay enough for one person to live on, let alone two; they still operate on the assumption that the parent has to have some burden. All the while, the child remains an invisible party to the dispute between the parent and their ‘employer’, the state. They lack any control over their care. Rather than being a commodity consumed by their parents they are now a factor of production consumed by society. Taxpayers hence expect to get their money’s worth, otherwise the childless will feel particularly indignant.

My view is that children are not commodities. They are neither owned by their parents nor by society. They are unique individuals with a fundamental right to life, liberty and security, just like adults.

The Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a more recent proposal that suggests not just wages for work, but an income for everybody, regardless of whether or how much they work. Based on the principle that everyone deserves at least a certain baseline of subsistence, it is naturally compatible with a fundamental rights perspective. Combined with a recognition of children as people, it seems natural that they too should be recipients of a UBI.

Although the child’s UBI would need to be administered by parents in the earliest part of their life, children should be able to exercise gradually more control over their own finances as they become more confident in doing so. They could then begin to exercise meaningful control not just over the food, toys and clothes they want, but over the care relationship itself. Even before they have full control over their income, the parent(s) who administer it should be subject to some variety of fiduciary responsibility, hence legally requiring them to use the fund only in the child’s interests. This would make UBI for children very different from child benefit, which is primarily conceived of as a payout to parents, not to children.

Some propose a basic income that’s only paid to adults, such as the US presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Other proposals for UBI do acknowledge children, but only with a reduced payout. A proposal of the Scottish Green Party, for example, has an age-graded system where pensioners receive £150 a week, adults get £100 and under–16s £50[2]. As I see it, this reflects a continuing tendency not just to undervalue care work but to undermine the autonomy of young people. In such proposals there is still a bias towards the idea that some component of care work just naturally has to be unpaid, and that children must reckon with the fortunes or lack thereof that they are born into. In such proposals there is still a reluctance to grant children control over their own lives[3].

Of course it could be argued that children have lower living expenses than adults. In fact, children have more demanding nutritional requirements to support not just their maintenance but also their growth, a factor which also entails a much more frequent refreshing of their clothing. But in addition to material needs children also require the care work itself - the work that is emotionally and physiologically demanding for the caregiver, and precisely what is supposed to be compensated in the ‘wages for housework’ perspective discussed above. It is hard to believe that all of these costs are covered by half of an adult income, as in the Green Party scheme.

Contrary to earlier perspectives, childcare should be conceived as a service to the child, similar to care provided for the elderly or disabled. In the same way that direct payments to the elderly or disabled can increase the autonomy they have over their life, young people could use their basic income to exercise more control over their own care and living arrangements as they become able to do so - but that certainly implies a higher UBI for young people than is usually assumed.

So yes, children should be able to sack the babysitter or change their daycare arrangements - they’re paying, after all. But their control should not stop there. Children should be able to sack their parents. Nobody should be forced into a situation they did not choose and from which they have no escape. Currently it is normal (and correct) for social services to intervene to prevent neglect or abuse, but that implies that the state has the right to define which situations a person can legitimately escape from, and which ones they have to just endure. It should be possible for children to change their parents or their living arrangements for any reason - not just state-sanctioned ones.

Certainly younger children may need support in making these kinds of decisions, either from state-supported social services, or from a trusted person that they name. Babies and infants meanwhile would also need supported decision-making, and the supporters would have to act strictly in the child’s interests, making a best effort to interpret their preferences. Older children and adolescents could decide to live independently if they really wanted, and then contract only the domestic or care services they felt they needed.

Note that we need not wait for the universal basic income to offer this respect to young people. Although we could see the UBI as part of an intersectional struggle with many beneficiaries - including children and carers - in theory ‘income for children’ could be a demand all of its own.

Naturally some people would complain that this model of childcare as a marketised service is something of a perversion of the love and emotional support that caring relationships are supposed to be about. But seeing children as commodities owned and manufactured by parents for later sale on the job market is in my opinion much more frightening. Certainly there is a radical anarcho-feminist perspective which sees commodities, money and markets as fundamentally opposed to caring relationships, which are based on unconditional giving. In that approach, the real ‘solution’ to care work is to transcend ‘capitalism’, replacing all forms of production and exchange with a voluntary gift economy.

But if such a transformation is possible at all, it is hardly practical in the present. While money and markets exist, care work will be undervalued and exploited if it isn’t valued in monetary terms. The approach I outline is a compromise: care work would be commodified as a service, but to children, not the state; yet it would simultaneously be state-funded via the UBI. It would privilege neither parents nor the childless, since everyone would receive the same basic income. Moreover it is compatible with a fundamental rights perspective that sees children as having equal rights to life and liberty, granting them as much autonomy as they are able to exercise. Crediting young people with a basic income at a high level, we also credit them with the autonomy and personhood they have so long been denied.


  1. https://endofcapitalism.com/2013/05/29/a-feminist-critique-of-marx-by-silvia-federici/  ↩

  2. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/universal-basic-income-scotland-week-cash-payment-life-nicola-sturgeon-first-minister-snp-a7934131.html  ↩

  3. Of course I realise there is an economy of scale when people live together in the same household that reduces their costs. But young people should not have this living arrangement enforced on them, nor is it justified that the benefits of this economy be credited entirely to the adults instead of being shared equally. If we are going to credit all adults with the same UBI, even if they live in a community with 10 other people, then we should do the same for children.  ↩