New Article: From Stigma to Dignity? Transforming Workfare with Universal Basic Income and a Federal Job Guarantee

Lynn Lu, From Stigma to Dignity? Transforming Workfare with Universal Basic Income and a Federal Job Guarantee, 72 S.C. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2021). Abstract below:

By the summer of 2020, pandemic isolation gave way to mass protests supporting the Movement for Black Lives with calls to end anti-Black police brutality and mass incarceration, but also seeking to end exploitation of Black essential workers and increase attention to longstanding economic devastation of divestment from communities of color. With physical health and safety linked inextricably to material deprivation came heightened public demands for racial, social, and economic justice to help marginalized communities not just survive in times of crisis, but thrive every day.  

As the COVID-19 pandemic takes a catastrophic toll on lives and livelihoods across the United States, the harshest impact of the unpredictable virus has disproportionately fallen with foreseeable accuracy on Black, immigrant, poor, and elderly people, who are most likely to live and work in close contact with others and to have less access to health care or emergency savings. The speed and severity of the viral contagion has rendered devastatingly, undeniably visible the vast, racial gap between those with reliable health care, child care, housing, nutrition, household wealth, and income and those without, but that gap was already widening well before the pandemic amid accelerating economic inequality, racial disparity, and precarity for those fortunate enough to find paid work. 

This Article examines reinvigorated proposals for universal basic income (UBI) and a federal job guarantee (JG) to reduce poverty, income inequality, and the widening racial wealth gap. It examines the potential of such reforms to put more money into the hands of those most likely to use it while ending involuntary unemployment and boosting labor conditions for all, but especially Blacks and people of color with less access to generational wealth, higher education, and protection against employment discrimination. It concludes that both UBI and JG are necessary but each insufficient on its own to achieve greater economic security and mobility, with dignified work for all. 

Crucially, a universal minimum income untethered to any form of work requirement is essential to break the racialized and gendered stigma that frames economic need as welfare dependency; equally important is the guarantee of public employment at a living wage to those who voluntarily choose to avoid gaps in earned income and employment history but have historically been excluded from the best work-life options. Together, UBI and JG form vital pillars of social support for withstanding future crises, large or small, and for creating the future society we want.

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