Systemic, radical changes in the United States are now in the cards. You can feel it in the news and in the streets, even with COVID-19 acting as a damper on protests. But we haven’t had much discussion of what specifically these changes should be. We know—though mainstream economists still haven’t figured it out—that economic growth isn’t the answer: we have hit the limits to growth. We need a basic income: a guaranteed cash payment to all adult citizens sufficient to support a minimal lifestyle.
Now you’re probably saying to yourself, “OK, basic income: possibly a good idea. But what does this have to do with veganism?”
By helping those at the bottom of the income ladder, universal basic income undercuts industries that rely on low-paid, unrewarding work—like the meat-packing industry, or fast-food establishments such as MacDonald’s.
Universal basic income should be a straightforward Robin Hood measure — take from the rich and give to the poor. We have vast and growing economic inequality, which compounds the pervasive racism long inherent in our economy. I wonder if I’ll ever get tired of citing this statistic: the average relative wage (your salary compared to the GDP) has been declining since the 1960s. Even real wages have stagnated. Real wages for unskilled labor have actually declined since 1980.
How do you pay for a basic income? It’s a piece of cake: by raising taxes. We would need a steep progressive income tax or wealth tax (such as proposed by Senator Elizabeth Warren) that would soak the rich. We need a few more details right here, but you get the idea.
Universal basic income could be revenue-neutral from the point of view of the government. Taxes would go up for everyone. But for people at the lower end of the income spectrum, the basic income would be greater than their somewhat higher taxes, so they would come out ahead. Somewhere in the middle, the basic income would exactly cancel out their increase in taxes, and above this level, people would start to pay more taxes than they have now. The greater your income, the bigger your tax hike.
This is basic social justice. If you’re homeless and unemployed, a basic income of $1200 per month will take you from zero income to $14,400 a year. So, point number one, this will solve the crisis of homelessness right off the bat. (It won’t completely do away with homelessness on its own, because there’s still mental illness, drug addiction, and other issues that would still need to be addressed.) But, point number two, it will also benefit everyone at the lower end of the income spectrum. Employers will know that their citizen workers now have an alternative to homelessness — they’re not out on the streets if they quit their jobs or are fired.
And here’s where the benefit for veganism comes in. The businesses that will suffer the most from such a measure will be those that rely on low-paid, soul-destroying work. People mostly take such work to avoid an even worse alternative: being homeless and unemployed. With a basic income, many of them will probably chuck their jobs entirely, or take an extended break while going back to school or trying to figure out a better way to make a living. Employers would no longer be able to apply the financial cudgel of homelessness to their employees.
What kinds of low-paid, soul-destroying work would be the first to go? Here’s two: slaughterhouse work and fast-food work. Some people would likely continue to work at slaughterhouses, but many of them are going to head home. Even today, slaughterhouse work has some of the highest turnover of any business and is the most dangerous occupation (highest injury and death rate) in the U. S. Without the threat of homelessness, turnover would accelerate dramatically, and employers at such institutions would have to improve pay and working conditions.
But not all low-paying jobs will be eliminated! Universal basic income would make it easier for qualified people to take on low-paying jobs that are intrinsically rewarding, jobs that some people love even though they don’t pay well. Like, for example, being a music teacher. Or a stay-at-home parent! Or an animal rights activist!
This is inherent social justice, because the people who will benefit the most from such a proposal are those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Therefore, by definition, those who will benefit the most will be those who have suffered the most. Thus, universal basic income is inherently anti-racist. Racism discriminates in ways that are hard to quantify and is so uniformly distributed across America that it is hard to even tell exactly how much it’s operating in each case. Basic income will benefit many minorities, but by definition, it will benefit everyone at the lower end of the income spectrum, including, for example, poor whites living in Appalachia. It will also be anti-sexist. It will benefit women and anyone who undertakes what has been traditionally regarded as unpaid “women’s work” — things like housework and taking care of the kids.
We are at the beginning of revolutionary social change. Vegans would benefit from embracing this proposal, which helps restore a basic sense of racial and gender equality to the country. Plus, it will make it easier to live at the lower end of the income spectrum and will hurt the slaughterhouse and fast-food industries. Being an activist for veganism or animal rights would become somewhat more lucrative. What’s not to love?
This doesn’t answer all possible objections to such a proposal, and there are some important details we haven’t addressed. But I would encourage vegans to support uinversal basic income as a way of restoring racial, sexual, and economic justice.
Featured image: a sign at a protest against low wages for fast food workers. Image credit Steve Rhodes, CC BY-SA 2.0.