The Future of Social Security Policy: Women, Work and a Citizen’s Basic Income, by Ailsa McKay

Routledge, London, 2005, 269pp, hardback, 0 415 34436 0, £50 Order this book

First of all, terminology: Ailsa McKay has interestingly combined the terms ‘Basic Income’ and ‘Citizen’s Income’ into ‘Citizen’s Basic Income’ (CBI): a decision which might move forwards the wider debate on terminology.

However, more importantly, her book’s purpose is to ‘draw attention to the confusing nature of mainstream economic theorizing in the policy process and to outline how a feminist economic perspective could contribute to the development of a more inclusive and realistic understanding of state welfare arrangements’ (p.1), because ‘to fully appreciate and understand the nature of social security measures the debate must progress beyond the realms of determining an efficient allocation of resources and incorporate questions of social justice, citizenship rights and individual autonomy’ (p.5).

The feminist perspective which McKay recommends sees the world ‘in terms of its inherent set of complex social and economic interaction’ (p.5) and questions the dominance of capitalist presuppositions because they limit the policy options we are able to conceptualise, and particularly a CBI option.

McKay’s introductory chapter is a highly accessible description of some of the consequences of such a feminist perspective, and has interesting things to say both about social construction of gender and social construction of academic disciplines such as economics. (On this issue: Nancy Cartwright, The Dappled World: A Study of the Boundaries of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), which emphasises the local nature of the so-called ‘laws’ of economics, maybe ought to have appeared in the bibliography).

Chapter 2 suggests that questions of justice are as important as questions of efficiency when income transfers are considered; and chapter 3 pursues McKay’s preference for seeing transfers as promoting ‘social security’ rather than serving ‘income maintenance’, with ‘social security’ understood as ‘an ideological objective to provide and/or promote an environment where each individual is afforded equal protection against economic insecurity’ (p.69).

Chapter 4 provides a brief history of social security policy in Britain and a description of New Labour’s ‘welfare to work’ strategy. The author also notes trends towards increasing means-testing and the associated emphasis on households rather than individuals. McKay documents the feminization of poverty through women’s labour market participation being concentrated in occupations which lend themselves to part-time and casual employment, and she discusses social exclusion as an effect of poverty. She concludes that what is required is ‘a policy that is independent of traditional labour market processes but which will operate in such a way that does not adversely affect the efficient functioning of the waged economy’ and that ‘a CBI presents as a possible remedy to the related, but yet distinct, problems of poverty and social exclusion and that positively responds to the dynamics of modern living conditions’ (p.102).

Chapter 5 defines a CBI, discusses its possible effects on existing patterns of work (i.e., paid work), and argues that it would meet the needs of a modern flexible labour market and particularly of women’s needs within such a labour market.
Rather less satisfactory is chapter 6, which treats ‘minimum income guarantee’, ‘social dividend’, Juliet Rhys Williams’ work-tested scheme and Negative Income Tax as ‘variations of a CBI’ (p.181) and then regards them as elements of the history of CBI understood as a ‘reform proposal’ (p.181). McKay’s case would have been better served by regarding CBI as sufficiently different from these ‘variations’ to enable the debate to leave behind the dominant mind-set which has informed arguments for the ‘variations’.

Chapter 7 shows that many arguments for a CBI are rather less than radical (and here the argument would have been clearer if the author had recognized that a partial CBI is still a CBI and not a ‘modification’); and chapter 8 develops more radical arguments based on a feminist economics perspective. The main argument here is that ‘work’ encompasses a wide range of activity, both paid and unpaid, both individual and corporate, and that a CBI, by disconnecting work and income, would enable us to value unpaid work more highly. (While ‘work is defined broadly at the beginning of this chapter, it is still sometimes used with the meaning ‘paid work’ and so ought to have been replaced by that term).

The book concludes with a call for a CBI based on a desire for gender equitable outcomes.

Whilst parts of this book are not as carefully argued as they ought to be, the content taken as a whole is a persuasive argument both for a new theoretical basis for discussion of social security policy and for a CBI, ‘a proposal that would effectively transform modern welfare states in such a way as to promote real freedom for all’ (p.248).

 

Footnotes

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