“People Want to Work”: Bernie Sanders Insinuates Women and People of Color are Lazy



Bernie Sanders doesn’t like one of the big ideas of the 2020 campaign, presented by Andrew Yang. In an interview with The Hill, Sanders hit Andrew Yang’s idea of a freedom dividend - his version of a universal basic income - as inferior to his own concoction of a federal jobs guarantee as a way to fight poverty. Bernie repeated his mantra, “people want to work”, implying that a universal basic income would somehow be a disincentive to work.

There can be some debate, of course, as to what the best ways of solving the problems of concentration of wealth and middle-class wage stagnation are. As a practical matter, I am not certain that I am yet sold on a universal basic income or a federal jobs guarantee. We can have a discussion on the merits of each, but for the purposes of this essay, I want to note Bernie Sanders’s framing of the issues: his characterization of a federal jobs guarantee, essentially, as ‘earned’ dignity of work, and his dismissal of guaranteed basic income as, in substance, a handout, a disincentive to work given to people who don’t want to. Such a handout, Sanders said, would be preferable to no income at all, but a jobs guarantee is best since “people want to work.”

This framing is not just economically wrong. More than that, this framing draws upon racist, sexist tropes against women and black and brown people. In fact, the reasons that this argument is economically bonkers and that it is offensive to women and people of color are precisely the same.

Consider this: a key purpose of universal basic income is to partially reward work that is critical but uncompensated in society. Women perform the vast majority of that uncompensated work, whether it is home-making, caring for children at home, or caregiving to a family member. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), even in developed economies, women on average spend over 4 hours a day doing unpaid work, twice as much time as men spend on average doing the same. Conversely, men on average spend about 100 minutes more than women doing paid work daily. However, when daily paid and unpaid work hours are accumulated, women’s contribution edges out men’s by about 30 minutes a day. If we’ve got a lazy gender, relatively speaking, it ain’t women. If women’s paid participation equaled men’s, it would add $28 trillion to the global GDP.

Given that women contribute 2 out of every 3 hours of uncompensated labor in the US, as well as given the gender pay gap, a universal basic income - something Yang smartly dubs the ‘freedom dividend’ - would be much more useful to women (again, on average) than to men. By the same token, since men spend more hours in currently paid work, men stand to gain much more than women from a jobs guarantee.

No one should think it an accident that Bernie Sanders naturally gravitates towards a solution that prefers men.

Aside from those whose labor is presently performed but not monetized, the other set of key beneficiaries of a universal basic income would, of course, be people who are already working but are not making enough. The universal basic income would be supplemental income for the working poor, part-time workers, those who are starting out with a small business, and those who wish to serve their communities by taking low-paying jobs often at community nonprofits.

Does anyone want to guess who would comprise this group? Women, once again, and people of color, particularly black and brown Americans. Just 3.9% of working white men and 3.1% of working Asian men are among the working poor, compared to 11% of black women and 9.6% of Latinas who are employed, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows. The universal basic income, therefore, is of much greater consequence to women and people of color - and especially black and Latina women.

What about the jobs guarantee? It may not help the working poor at all, since they, you know, already have a job! Unless Bernie is planning on making the working poor quit their current jobs and compel them to work for the government instead, the jobs guarantee may be basically irrelevant to the working poor.

Now, before everyone runs around and tells me how a $15 minimum wage is going to solve working poverty, consider that even aside from automation replacing many low-wage jobs, almost half the working poor are part-time workers, whose situation is not likely to be improved enough through a simple raise in the hourly wage. More importantly, in metro areas with high cost of living, neither a $15 minimum wage (which many of those metros already have) nor a $15/hour federal jobs guarantee will help with the cash flow of workers who are technically not working poor but may very well be if what counts as working poor varied with cost of living. An extra $1,000 a month, however, would help these workers tremendously.

In other words, the freedom dividend is much more critical to the working poor and urban populations than a jobs guarantee. And conversely, a jobs guarantee would disproportionately benefit rural white men.

Once again, no one should be surprised that the primary focus of Bernie Sanders’s economic policy is rural whites rather than black and brown urban low-income workers.

Bernie Sanders is running for president for the same basic reason Donald Trump did: to represent disaffected, insecure, entitled white men and their core grievance of loss of economic privilege. People of color are, at best, an afterthought for Sanders. What Sanders said in this interview boils down to this: he is partial to a system that prefers whites and men over one that is more effective for women and people of color as his solution for broad-based economic prosperity. To add insult to injury, he justified his choice by saying “People want to work”, making it abundantly clear just who he thinks wants to work and who he thinks doesn’t.

Democrats cannot beat Trump with a nominee who wants to out-pander Trump among white voters who think their birthright of a good job is being stolen by immigrants and foreigners.


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