No, Amber A’Lee Frost, unhappy 50s housewives aren’t the perfect rebuttal to Universal Basic Income

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By David Futrelle

Amber A’Lee Frost — a Chapo Trap House semi-regular and the coiner of the phrase “dirtbag left” — thinks she’s found the perfect rebuttal to Andew Yang’s thousand-dollar-a-month Universal Basic Income proposal in the pages of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. She’s wrong, as she usually is.

In a piece for Jacobin, Frost takes on what she sees as the “failson” army that is the Yang Gang by attacking their favorite part of Yangism — the thousand bucks a month he proposes the government pay each and every adult American, a lot of money for the basement-dwelling, video-game playing ne-er-do-wells that Frost sees as the backbone of Yang’s support.

Frost — one of those semi-leftist “skidmarxists” who combine progressive rhetoric with some weirdly reactionary politics — briefly runs through some of the standard arguments against Yang’s pie-in-the-sky proposal, the most compelling being the fact that Yang would combine his payment plan with deep cuts in other social programs. Yang giveth, but he also taketh away.

Frost also suggests that a thousand bucks a month is “a pittance,” which suggest she’s more than a little out of touch with the ordinary people that she as an ostensible socialist should be supporting; for those living on the poverty line, a thousand bucks a month would literally double their income.

But Frost only devotes a few lines to what she calls the “practical” case against Yang’s proposals. She quickly moves on to what she sees as her ace in the hole: That housewives in the 1950s received the equivalent of a Universal Basic income, and all it did was make them sad.

Citing The Feminine Mystique, that famous expose of suburban discontent, as her source of evidence, Frost declares that the housewives that Friedan wrote about, living

in their comfortable homes with their comfortable allowances, with all of that marvelous free time, were the biggest experiment in UBI the world has ever seen, and they were desperately, wretchedly unhappy, to the point of mental illness. Because that is what being paid off and discarded does to a person.

Frost’s weird argument has already generated some fierce pushback online.

The idle, existentially miserable 1950s housewives that Frost sees as the face of UBI were even at the time a small minority of women. Most housewives worked the equivalent of a 40-hour-a-week job, either in the home (as @eileanorr notes) or outside of it (even in the 1950s roughly a third of all women had jobs).

I’m not quite sure how a middle- or upper-middle-class housewife’s allowance counts as “Universal Basic Income” in that, among other things, it isn’t universal, or really an income, given that the husband likely controlled the purse strings for most of a household’s costs outside of food and clothing and the like. It’s not like most housewives on an “allowance” could spend that money on whatever they wanted.

Most of the housewifely discontent of the 1950s wasn’t the result of “failson”-style idleness; it was the result of educated women essentially being forced into menial, isolating work in the home — and not even earning a paycheck of their own to show for it.

Frost’s attempts to hand-wave away the issue of household patriarchy are disingenuous at best. Instead of frankly acknowledging the degree of control husbands had over their wives back in the 1950s, and still have today, she offers her own autobiography as proof that getting a paycheck for nothing from the state is somehow worse than getting an “allowance” from a husband.

[A]s someone who has been both a housewife and on the dole, I assure you that housewives have far more political and economic leverage than welfare recipients.

A capitalist state that holds the purse strings is far less accountable to its dependents than a husband. If he annoyed me or didn’t give me enough money, I had immediate recourse due to both the value of my labor and my proximity to him. Such is not the case with the distant and opaque bureaucracy of the welfare office — you cannot berate them when you are unhappy, you cannot go on strike by refusing to do their laundry or clean, and you certainly can’t poison their dinner. These are not tactics I am willing to forswear (a girl has to have options).

Setting aside that final bit about poisoning — wow, so hilarious! — what if you “go on strike” and your husband responds with threats and/or physical abuse? This was not that unlikely a possibility back in the 1950s. And without money of their own — an “allowance” to do the grocery shopping doesn’t count — these wives couldn’t simply leave. That’s why being economically dependent on a spouse can be a trap.

Housewives in the 1950s didn’t suffer because their husbands gave them allowances. They suffered because they didn’t have control over their own lives, nor did they have much in the way of options to make new lives for themselves.

While Yang’s particular plan is rather shitty — one hand takes what the other gives — there’s nothing inherently wrong with Universal Basic Income besides its current political impossibility. Instead of pretending that UBI and “full employment” (Frost’s favorite panacea) are fundamentally opposed to one another, why not support both?

Fighting for more jobs, better jobs, and a stronger social safety net underpinned by a UBI. That sounds like a decent progressive platform for any number of candidates other than Andrew Yang.

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1 year ago

What dole was she on? She doesn’t have kids as far as I know and she’s not disabled. There is no dole for people who don’t fall into those two categories in the US. As someone who has actually spent many many hours of my life in welfare offices as a single mother and knows how shitty they are, but also been in an abusive marriage, I’ll take any welfare and a big faceless government bureaucracy over a husband any day.

With that said, UBI as Yang proposes is not helpful for those who currently qualify for welfare programs. Childcare benefits by themselves often are worth more than $1k a month. And he’s not serious about medicare for all, so he’s going to ruin medicaid for his UBI and then what will the disabled and poor have for healthcare?

Redsilkphoenix: Jetpack Vixen, Intergalactic Meanie
Redsilkphoenix: Jetpack Vixen, Intergalactic Meanie
11 months ago

Just saw this, and will only say that someone who is childless, never-married, and non-disabled can get on assorted welfare programs. The amounts are going to be much smaller, ‘natch (the most I ever got when I was eligible for food stamps was about $72/month), but it can be done.

Just had to point that out here.

11 months ago

Yeah, food stamps benefits are so low for people without kids who also have a job, it’s not worth jumping through all the hoops for it much of the time, especially in red states where there are work requirements. I’ve known actual unemployed homeless people who could get no benefits other than food stamps and their benefits were under $50 per month. In any other country, “the dole” actually pays you enough to live on when you don’t have a job.

The point I was trying to make is that if she actually had enough experience with the system to be writing about it with authority, as she is trying to do, she’d realize she actually does have a lot of recourses that she wouldn’t have with a husband, including a fair appeal process and the ability to call her case worker’s supervisors (and their supervisors). And she’d know that those avenues give you more agency than being in a financially dependent relationship with a man.