Bread and Roses: Beyond a Basic Income


 The most satisfying product of culture is bread.
from “Riasg Buidhe,” Tormentil and Bleached Bones, Thomas A. Clark (1993)


This story could begin and end with bread. We could think of the problem in terms of bread, and the solution in terms of bread. Bread is the final term in the equation that, through the application of labour and heat and time, turns water and wheat and air into bone and muscle and fat, the chemical reaction that turns the world into consciousness. We need bread to continue to exist in the world in all of our particularity. We cannot have our differences without sustenance. We cannot escape our dependence on bread.

We cannot think about bread without thinking about gendered labour. Breadwinner denotes the person who brings home the cash to exchange for bread, but misses that, historically, the person who decided how many loaves were needed and how to stretch them, how much of bread money should go instead to a new pair of shoes, was a woman. The first economist was a woman.

Bread’s alchemy turns the world into consciousness and, as a consequence, we want more than bread. We want food for the mind as well. Because we like to do things with words, sometimes we say bread, but mean something else: cash. We mean something exchangeable, some lowest-common-denominator to be traded so that we might fulfill desires more specific than hunger: barre class, salted pistachios, stick and poke tattoos, the collected works of Michel Foucault, that Black Flag album on vinyl, maybe. Or roses. Maybe we want roses.


noun, historical

1  A light two-wheeled carriage pulled by one horse.
Origin: Late 18th century: apparently a transferred sense of obsolete gig ‘a flighty girl’, which was also applied to various objects or devices that whirled.
noun, informal

1  A live performance by a musician or group playing popular or jazz music.
1.1  A job, especially one that is temporary or that has an uncertain future.
from Oxford English Dictionary


They say we’re running out of jobs, and they’re not entirely wrong. Like when you go to the grocery store and use those self-checkout machines…they say that’s what the future looks like.

They say the robots took the factory jobs, and that soon they’ll take over the service industry…machines will provide for our every need.

They say we’ll have robot garbage collectors and robot tax assessors—all the jobs “no one wants to do” will be done by bodies without souls. That’s what they say.

In my part of the world, the ability of the majority to continue living is contingent upon the ability of that same majority to earn a wage—to sell their body as labour for a predetermined amount of time for a predetermined price in a predetermined location; to make themselves a channel for someone else’s good. In the old days, this was called a job.

Jobs are few and far between these days; now we have something else: gigs. Scattered among the wage-earners are owners in miniature: bright-eyed “social enterprise” types, freelancers with coffee-stained enamel, members of the precariat academic class hunched over americanos they can’t afford, contributing to the local café’s heating bill with their small change and their bodies rather than warming the space where they sleep.

Despite the illusion of freedom from the daily grind, the fates of the wage-earners and the senders-of-invoices are tied together.

The problem, they say, is that we depend on employment income to stay alive. How will we survive when employment as we know it is over? Surely we can innovate our way out of this mess.

One idea: a cash transfer to every citizen in need; no strings attached. Imagine receiving a cheque every month that could cover your basic necessities, allowing you to do whatever you want with your days. Maybe you would give more of your time to your community, or do creative work, or lie in bed when you need to without worrying whether or not you’ll be able to eat next week. Maybe you’d visit your aunt at the nursing home across town; you could play a halting game of bridge with the old ladies who can still hold cards, bring them liquorice allsorts from the drugstore. They might like that.

The point is, you do what you want with the money: put a roof over your head, pay your cell phone bill, buy some frozen hash browns and sriracha sauce and enjoy them together in the comfort of your own home. You do you, no one gets in your way. You do not have to submit receipts. You are not subject to meetings with a caseworker. You won’t get cut off if you forget to log-in to the website and give details of your job search. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that we would be happier and healthier with less inequality, and many proponents of a Universal Basic Income think it could level the playing field. Less inequality, a better standard of living for people just scraping by, more choices, and a new universal social program: why not?

There are certainly nuanced defences of the idea. The social safety net we do have is tattered and torn: navigating programs like Employment Insurance and Social Assistance is a specific sort of hell, especially for women with caregiving responsibilities. Some feminists think a UBI could offer a better deal, something to fall back on that wouldn’t kick you on the way down, a survival guarantee without the indignity of means-testing. Kathi Weeks argues that a UBI could help de-centre the male breadwinner as an economic archetype, making space for a form of redistribution that recognizes the value of labour historically done by women.

People with insecure citizenship status, most of them racialized, the majority of them women, do a disproportionate amount of the work that is considered natural, the work that belongs to the household. If we plan to articulate hopes for a universal basic income, we might ask if these people belong in our universe, and why.

A Universal Basic Income is a nice thought, but not an imaginative one. Blind spots abound, and feminists can do better. Talking about cash without talking about work or land doesn’t bring us any closer to the “real utopias” that Erik Olin Wright envisioned; it defers the question of ownership, treating those who exercise control over our time and resources as a technicality rather than a foundational assumption of our economic lives. We face a precarious economic future where climate change threatens the earth we walk on, and it’s easier to imagine a nationally administered individual cash transfer than to take troubling economic structures that entrench gendered poverty and deprivation into our own hands. We have our work cut out for us.



Also, how is capital not an infinite laboratory called “conditions?”And where is the edge of the electrified grid?
from Garments Against Women, Anne Boyer (2015)


Employment is an exchange relationship that has come to feel natural. As a worker, you give your sustained effort and presence, and in exchange, you get a paycheque. You return to the same place day after day to repeat the process; generations repeat this process. Coworkers become confidantes. We understand each other because we share in a daily ritual, training our bodies and minds to the same rhythm. It’s fun, at first, like summer camp—we’re different enough to notice that we’re all in it together. Until we’re not.

We are asked to make personal investments to improve our employability. We identify with our field, seek opportunities to prove our worth to those who might hire us at a higher rate. We learn on the job, we learn at home. We practice and perfect and apply our knowledge at work and are promised an additional fifty cents per hour at the end of the year. We say that fifty cents per hour adds up, over time. We smile, we say thank you.

When we go home, what do we go home to? Do we return to a full second life, the half of our existence where we can have desires and make choices, perhaps shared with others (lovers, friends, family, non-human companions)? If we’re lucky, yes. Some of us don’t go home. We go to the next job, needing “the hours”—needing the cash—to keep ourselves and our loved ones alive. Some of us go to class, to study, finding the prospect of staying in the current way of living miserable enough to sacrifice rest for a gamble on a better future. Many of us go home to piles of sheets to be washed and empty lunch boxes that need filling and young humans hungry for connection and in need of attention and interest and care—not work that we necessarily want to opt out of, but not work that is paid.  Some of us are happy, but many of us are tired. Some of us are frustrated and weary, at the end of our rope. Some of us have bread; few still dream of roses.


It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.
Frederic Jameson, among others

Income — incoming. That which arrives consistently (Middle English, in the sense ‘entrance, arrival’: from the Old Norse, inkomma).

Some things you might buy with cash:

  • apples
  • rice and beans
  • a short contract with a property owner entitling you to a roof over your head for a specific period of time
  • sneakers
  • child care
  • bus tickets
  • oatmeal
  • books
  • roses

What arrives? What arrives consistently? What arrives consistently for women?

In grade six we spent a few weeks learning the difference between basic needs and human rights. In first year sociology, I was introduced to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which situated the basic physical requirements I had learned about as a child at the bottom of a pyramid with self-actualization at its peak. In their concern with general provision, neither of these schema helped me to notice the assumptions made about what is required in order to keep a single person alive.

Universality means it is available to everyone. It means that it does not discriminate based on age, gender, employment status. But universality has limits. Thinking about universality should remind us of borders; we need to carry the fact that our society is organized by a state that includes and excludes, that says “yes” and “not this time” when doling out access to collective goods and safety from bodily harm.

Thinking the limits of universality should remind us that we live with and amongst people who will not go to the hospital for fear of being reported to immigration authorities, people whose bank accounts will not be cushioned by a sales tax rebate three times a year. Many of these people do the care work of the world we live in—they keep the mall washrooms clean and the babies of busy parents fed and the grandparents of those babies as comfortable as is possible in aging bodies. They (that is, people with insecure citizenship status, most of them racialized, the majority of them women) do a disproportionate amount of the work that is feminized, the work that is considered natural, the work that belongs to the household, to hygiene, to the production of food, to being born and dying. If we plan to articulate hopes for a universal basic income, we might ask if these people belong in our universe, and why.

Working people and the poor aren’t the only ones interested in a UBI. Sam Altmann, founder of Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator start-up incubator, announced in 2016 that his business would pilot a basic income in Oakland, California, under the direction of researcher Elizabeth Rhodes. Business Insider reported that Altman thinks folks should be able to get “as rich as they fucking want,” as long as the basic needs of those in poverty are met. Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX is also on the record about basic income, touting its inevitability as automated workers take over.

Musk, Altmann, and a host of other entrepreneurial-ists are confident that they have a roadmap to the only possible future. But just because some jobs disappear, doesn’t mean that property will. As Alyssa Battistoni writes in Dissent, “[t]he view of UBI as the foundation of the gig economy […] is a tacit acknowledgement that capitalism can’t pay its full costs—[it represents] a transfer of responsibility for a living wage from private employers to the public.”

The gig economy tech bros want us to believe that work is disappearing, but maybe the problem is that they won’t recognize some work when they see it. Millions go to work every day in homes, and the number of people who spend their days caring for others is increasing more quickly than any other sector. As Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, notes: we struggle to “treat this work as real work…it’s oftentimes referred to as help or companionship, and [as a result] this work remains in the shadows.” Hidden from view, these workers are more susceptible to exploitation. The median annual income for a homecare worker in the United States is $13,000.

Even if we were to heed Altmann and Musk’s suggestions, how on earth would we pay for it? Some believe that a Universal Basic Income could replace the welfare state, full-stop: instead of employment insurance and income assistance and disability supports and public health care, we could take all of our tax revenue, parcel it out to citizens in individual bundles, and (supposedly) eliminate the need for means-tested social programs. For Scott Santens and many others, there is a progressive case to be made for basic income—scrapping the welfare state to guarantee cash to everyone would be the best move because doing so could “eliminate poverty” as we know it.

Eliminating social assistance and employment insurance is a slippery slope—surely if we dismantle those, publicly funded health care and education will not be far behind. This is troubling not only because slowly replacing relationships that are not mediated by cash will bring about a fundamental shift in how we relate to each other, but because so much of the welfare state has been chipped away at and reconfigured and made better by generations of women who looked at what was universal (white, male, able-bodied, childless) and found it wanting.

If we ever get around to interrogating the start-up entrepreneurs and policy wonks about the validity of their proposal, I’d have one question: What would this mean for women? I’d wager a month’s basic income that they wouldn’t have a good answer.



Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes,
Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread, but give us roses.
from “Bread and Roses,” James Oppenheim (December 1911)


In 1903, at the age of twenty-one, Rose Schneiderman organized her first unionized shop. The daughter of Polish Jewish émigrés, she had been working in Manhattan’s garment industry as a cap maker since she was fourteen years old. Young women from Ireland and the eastern reaches of the continent filled these factories. Eight years later, on April 2, 1911, Schneiderman stood on the steps of the Metropolitan Opera House to address a crowd gathered in the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. On March 25th of that year, the factory had gone up in flames, trapping workers inside, most of them recent Jewish and Italian immigrant women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-three. One hundred and forty-six people died in the disaster; the number might have been lower had the exits and staircases from the eighth, ninth, and tenth storeys not been blocked by owners who locked them to prevent garment workers from slacking off or stealing merchandise. 62 of those who died jumped or fell to their deaths from the high windows. Schneiderman’s remarks:

I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship…Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.

These “poor burned bodies” were gendered bodies—women’s bodies. They were bodies with fingers trained to manipulate the small parts of fussy machines; bodies with lungs that went brown with cotton dust. They were bodies assumed to be attached to men’s wages, bodies working for pin money. They were bodies who were part of a workforce that produced 70 percent of all the clothing worn by women in the United States—bodies responsible for other bodies.

Schneiderman’s address was delivered to a crowd of middle- and upper-class women who had been organized by the Women’s Trade Union League. The crowd included civic leaders and union representatives, and had come together to call for workplace safety legislation. Schneiderman and her comrades wanted more than legislation—they wanted organized power.

Now our shirtwaists are sewn overseas, factory-owners having decamped from North America in search of lower labour costs and overheads. While some work associated with the body is outsourced, there are limits to the distance at which this work can be done. Care of bodies is also a product—a commodity made of touch and presence. Care work is an industry; its workers (most of them women) are trained in a set of skills (most of them feminized) to keep bodies clean and safe and well—whether those bodies belong to children, elders, or others who need help.

Echoes of the factory’s dangers can be heard in the halls of the nursing home or the private residence. Long-term health care providers face the highest risk of on-the-job injuries of workers in any industry in North America; the chance of getting hurt at work increases as output is ramped up. Care work may well be the final frontier of Taylorism: when it comes to the vulnerable bodies and souls of other humans, the line between efficiency and abuse is thin.

In the last hundred years, while the product of women’s labour may have changed, the process hasn’t. Women are still the workers who do what machines cannot. Until we are willing to allow non-human technologies to provide for our most intimate needs, there will be workers who are not yet automated, workers who are subject to real material conditions, workers for whom a universal basic income would mean very little.



What the woman who labours wants is the right to live, not simply exist—the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.
Rose Schneiderman, speech to Bread and Roses strikers (Lowell, MA 1912)


What makes us think that the UBI under discussion has the potential to liberate? Would it represent an escape from work, or merely a reshuffling of responsibility for cash transfers? What kind of freedom does a Universal Basic Income offer if it props up an ownership structure that concentrates power in the hands of the very few? Why abandon work as a site of change when the highly gendered forms of precarious employment that underpin our economy aren’t going anywhere anytime soon? Why not organize instead?

If we organize we can articulate that we want more than what we have been given. We can make choices that are at once material and political, transcending earth-bound womanhood without abandoning reality. We can feel through the range of human emotions, let the plane of desire and anger cross the single dimension patriarchy affords us that runs from despair to gratitude. In organizing we might win the cash that provides us with the means to make our particular choices, but more than that, we stand to gain what only mutual struggle can produce—solidarity.

Organizing requires strategy: it engenders a type of political thought that is generative, not reactionary. Whole-person organizing builds living movements, movements whose participants make demands of their own borne from desires of their own; whose agents give not just their bodies to the fight, but their minds too. Whole-person organizing is the political inheritance of feminists who complicated working class struggles with their particular bodies, with their children, with their bed-ridden relatives in need of care.

Guaranteed cash teaches us more of what we already know: without money, we’re stuck. It narrows the possibilities of collective investment by requiring that the Good be thought of in terms of dollars and cents, rather than what those dollars and cents actually represent—hours and minutes of our lives, our effort and energy spent, our presence shared. Reducing our social problems to a question of whether or not we have enough cash will not help us to imagine a social wage (a guarantee of services rather than dollars). A Universal Basic Income individualizes responsibility; what we ought to be doing is collectivizing it.

Women’s economic oppression runs deeper than the cash one carries in their wallet. It is a question of ownership and control, and it will not be solved by an allowance payment. There are other ways of practicing economics, that feminine science. There are better ways to win our roses.