UBI as a means of reducing gendered poverty

This year’s International Women’s Day asks its celebrants to challenge the world in order to change it (#ChooseToChallenge). The following simulation seeks to challenge the fact that women in the United States are more likely to be impoverished than men. In our analysis, we evaluate a Universal Basic Income (UBI), funded by a flat income tax, as a possible solution for both alleviating poverty and narrowing the gendered poverty gap.1

Poverty rates for children are roughly equal between genders, while adult women experience poverty at rates 17 percent greater than adult men: 12.4 percent vs. 10.6 percent. As a general trend, the difference in poverty rates between women and men increases with age. For example, 20.8 percent of women aged 85 or older are in poverty, compared to only 14.5 percent of men of the same age. Among people aged 85 or older, women experience deep poverty at twice the rate of men.

With a significant difference in rates of poverty for adult women as compared to men, how might a UBI help close that gap? Our past modeling has shown that a UBI would lessen poverty across demographic groups, and also shrink poverty disparities by race, Indigenous heritage, and disability status. Our research here shows that it would do the same by gender.

After receiving a UBI, the poverty rates for women and men converge as the monthly amount increases (we’ve focused on adults here). Consistent with our past simulations, a $300 monthly UBI would halve the rate of female poverty and female deep poverty.

UBI significantly narrows the ratio of poverty and deep poverty rates for adult women compared to adult men. With a monthly UBI of $500, the rate of women compared to men in poverty is more than halved and the rate of women compared to men in deep poverty is nearly equal.

The gender income gap is inseparable from the issue of care work. On one hand, the “baby penalty” explains much of the gap, with mothers earning less than fathers while women and men without children have similar earnings. Meanwhile, high marginal tax rates for low-income parents (due to the phasing out of benefits) discourages work disproportionately of mothers. A recent poll found that Americans prefer cash assistance to other family assistance policies like paid family leave, subsidized childcare, wage subsidies, and baby bonds. Mothers, fathers, and low-income people especially preferred cash assistance, which would likely be more distributionally progressive than other policy options.

In her paper advocating for UBI as compared to other alternatives, political scientist Almaz Zelleke states that:

Perhaps most importantly for advocates of gender equality, a basic income by virtue of its universality goes to both providers and recipients of care, and thus has the best chance of eliminating poverty for the most vulnerable group in contemporary capitalist economies: single mothers and their children. To any feminist, this should be a strong argument in favor of basic income.

Women provide most of the care work that today goes unpaid and unrecognized. UBI compensates for that care work, reducing gender inequities and investing in the well-being of the cared-for. Our analysis suggests that a UBI could be a relevant policy in the greater movement for the social, economic, and political equality of women.

  1. Data was gathered from the US Census Bureau’s March Supplement, which covers economic circumstances in 2019. We use the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which incorporates taxes and transfers (including in-kind benefits like SNAP) and adjusts for local housing costs. The flat income tax is applied on positive adjusted gross income.