Investing in The Labor of Care: Guaranteed Basic Income as Climate Resilience

Originally posted in the Climate Psychology Alliance – North America blog

I am an Infant-Family Mental Health Specialist. I am captivated by the extraordinary potential, and the profound vulnerability, that marks the beginning of each life. I have been a homebirth midwife, doula, residential counselor, case manager, parent educator, and therapist. I have experimented with countless interventions at the individual and family level, hoping that every child I meet could have the best chance to reach their full potential. And hoping that cumulatively, these small acts between us would not only ease the impacts of systemic injustices, but help to make the systems more just. As the polycrisis unfolds, interventions at this level are no longer enough. I want to use my skills to directly promote systems change.

In my journey to cope with the polycrisis, I have found solace in learning about the synergistic property of complex systems. Joanna Macy explains: “as parts self-organize into a larger whole, capacities emerge which could never have been predicted, and which the individual parts did not possess. The weaving of new connections brings new responses and new possibilities into play.” (Coming Back to Life p 55) The whole of a complex system is greater than the sum of its parts, and it can unfold in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It is possible that our small actions, woven together, can catalyze great change.

The actions most likely to catalyze change are known as leverage points. Donella Meadows defines these as “places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.” She lists types of leverage points by order of effectiveness – how likely an intervention is to create significant change. Paradigms are among the most effective points to leverage. Paradigms are shared social agreements about the nature of reality; they are the implicit sources of systems.

“I am attempting to treat the consequences of our cultural conviction that the work of care is not real work. That the vital task of preparing the next generation of humans for their place in this world, is somehow neither vital nor meaningful. That it doesn’t even count.  ”

Patriarchy is the first paradigm I learned to see, embedded in the laws and customs that define our society. I recall the shock of discovering how insidiously it infects our subconscious, penetrating the stories and images that surround us. How it has locked us into binary thinking and systematically devalued all things deemed “feminine” – the nurturing of children, the care-taking of family and community, the extraordinary interconnected wonder and beauty of the natural world.

Patriarchy weaves its invisible influence in combination with other root paradigms of modern culture: Capitalism, which defines the worth of all activities by money earned, thereby erasing the value of nurturing children within the home. White supremacy, which deems BIPOC children to be of even less value than their white peers. Individualism, which has increasingly isolated us in nuclear families, when we evolved with a neurobiological need to be raised in tribes. Colonialism and its legacy of an extractive economy, sucking every last bit of life-force out of workers, families, cultures, and ecosystems, in the creation and consumption of goods. 

The United States is a prime example of how brutally these paradigms intersect upon the lives of young children. The US has, by far, the worst maternal and infant mortality rates of any high income country. Mothers* here are 3x more likely to die in childbirth than those in Europe. And Black mothers are 3x more likely to die in childbirth than White mothers – an exponential increase in danger. We are the only country in the global north that does not guarantee paid parental leave. And, while real wages have dwindled to the point that two full-time working adults can barely sustain a family, childcare remains unaffordable for most parents, and unsustainably underpaid for most providers. The recent attempt to address these issues was removed from the Build Back Better plan during negotiations with Senator Joe Manchin. And all of them are soon to be profoundly exacerbated by the loss of reproductive choice.

For most of us, turning our attention to the extent of profound un-care in this nation takes us beyond a state of cognitive dissonance. It is deeply ego-dystonic. The impulse to nurture and protect our young is written into the fabric of our DNA. It is a primary evolutionary drive, more ancient than even our humanity. Yet in our implicit agreement to these paradigms, we have completely unraveled the social contract. Our instinct to care is absent from the policies that dictate our social structure. 

Covid offered a preview into how quickly our near nonexistent social safety net can crumble. It has been a profoundly stressful time to have a baby. In my practice, I see far more mothers who cannot get a single night to catch up on sleep. Elusive when parenting an infant, sleep is the critical starting point for stabilizing postpartum mental health. Never has it been harder for such a large percentage of my clients to access the help required to meet this basic need. I see far more mothers who are alone with multiple young children nearly all of the time, criticizing themselves for their moments of impatience when the weight of their tasks is overwhelming, while their partners work 6-7 days a week to keep the family afloat. 

Over and over again, I tell my clients that they are not, in fact, bad mothers, but good people doing their best in a broken culture. Inevitably, they bring to treatment relational conflict over work loads and role expectations, and stress over impossible decisions about jobs and childcare. I tell them that mothering an infant is working. It is working 24/7. Imagine if mothers got paid even minimum wage for the exhausting and demanding job of tending to the care, nurturing and safety of a completely dependent and vulnerable being. Then, in my charts, I tell insurance companies that I am “reframing self-blaming cognitive distortions to decrease feelings of guilt.”

I am attempting to treat the consequences of our cultural conviction that the work of care is not real work. That the vital task of preparing the next generation of humans for their place in this world, is somehow neither vital nor meaningful. That it doesn’t even count.  

“We would remember the truth that lives deep in our bones – that caring for each other and our relationships is worth far more than money can buy.”

In a recent interview with the Guardian, Naomi Klein describes how, if we are going to instill community resilience for the climate disasters we face, we must “invest in the labor of care at every level” so we can “build a way of living with one another that is significantly kinder and more generous than the way we currently live”  As Adrienne Maree Brown points out, it is the most collaborative forms of life – such as dandelions and fungi – that adapt best to dramatic change. “Species only survive if they learn to be in community.” (Emergent Strategy p14)

Klein states that investment in care requires “guaranteeing basic economic rights, like the right to housing, food and clean water. If we build out that infrastructure, we can weather shocks with far greater grace.” There is a growing movement to guarantee basic economic rights by acknowledging the value of mothering. Many communities are investing in pilot programs to provide Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI) for families with young children. My county has initiated a program to provide $500/month to about 325 families with children under 5. The nearby city of San Francisco has a program called The Abundant Birth Project, which is specifically targeting pregnant and postpartum, Black and Pacific Islander mothers.  

Evidence for the benefits of GBI programs is overwhelming. Internationally, GBI recipients have not reduced their work hours, as many social conservatives fear. Nor have they increased spending on addictive products like alcohol or tobacco. Instead, many have successfully used the money to increase their education, invest in self employment, or otherwise increase long term earnings. Within the US, The Economic Security Project compiles an annual report “Cash as Care”, which documents that GBI programs improve long term economic security, housing security, food security and educational attainment, as well as safety from domestic violence, maternal and child health, mental health, and family relationships.

I am throwing the weight of my professional status behind advocacy for GBI. Yet I am aware that GBI is an intervention in parameters, not paradigms. Paying mothers for a portion of their labor of care introduces new cash flow into the capitalist economy, a necessity for people who have previously been all but excluded. But it does nothing to change our immersion in capitalism. Which is why Donella Meadows puts parameters “dead last” on her list of powerful interventions. She calls changing parameters “diddling with the details…Not that parameters aren’t important — they can be, especially in the short term and to the individual who’s standing directly in the flow.” But there’s not a lot of leverage in them; they are unlikely to change systems.

Image copyright Kate Raworth

GBI alone cannot elevate the labor of care when our root paradigms continue to diminish it. Even as I advocate for GBI, my sights are set on much greater change:  the co-creation of a doughnut economy. One in which everyone on the planet has enough resources to sustain them, within the boundaries of the Earth’s capacity to sustain us all. I envision this new system fed by the ancient wisdom of reciprocity – a gift economy. We would no longer debate whether to pay mothers money to establish their worth. We would remember the truth that lives deep in our bones – that caring for each other and our relationships is worth far more than money can buy.

In general, parameter change is not systems change. But there is an element that I believe could make magic out of GBI:  the potent potentiality of infancy. If ever there was a parameter to leverage, reducing the stress of parents with young children must be it. Parents with less stress are more available to attune to their babies, increasing the likelihood of secure attachment and all the developmental benefits that follow. More financially stable parents have more time to spend in positive activities with their children, improving the quality of their relationships and promoting lifelong social and emotional health.  Qualitative data from the Cash as Care report describes parents finding time to “watch tv with my kids instead of yelling,” to “breathe and do homework” together, and to take their children on outings that everyone enjoys. These strengthened relationships increase children’s chances of reaching their potential in all areas of life – including adaptation to, and mitigation of, the climate crisis.

Pilot programs also provide evidence that GBI strengthens community resilience. In a panel discussion with the Guaranteed Income Community of Practice, Michelle Lockhart noted the change in her Atlanta neighborhood following Covid tax credits and stimulus checks: “you had a little bit of relief, and people were actually speaking to each other in the neighborhood… But when that stopped everybody went back to being antisocial…. But when the money is there and everybody feels joyous and free, they are able to show up as the best version of themselves.” Reducing the stress of poverty enables people to attune to their community. They can show up together to adapt to, and mitigate, the climate crisis.

Equity is the path forward to environmental stability. This is the conclusion of the Club of Rome in their new book Earth for All. In a discussion with the authors, Christiana Figueres reminds us that: “We are all as vulnerable as the most vulnerable link.” By far, the most vulnerable humans on the planet are infants and small children born into poverty. Here in the richest nation in the world, GBI is one way to make the system more just. It feels like my clinical duty, as a professional committed to the wellbeing of children, to support the movement in any way I can. 

* In this post, I lean into the framework and definition offered by the Economic Security Project and Black Mamas Matter Alliance that recognizes moms as those who care for and mother families and communities—whether they are trans, cis, or gender nonconforming. I use the term mother or mama to mean people who parent, care for, and nurture their families and communities, inclusive of all gender identities.


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