As millions enjoyed Labor Day with backyard barbecues, millions more reported to low-wage jobs, working unpredictable hours and facing difficult conditions that have come to characterize work for too many Americans. Over the past decade, as concerns about the “future of work” emerged among employers, policymakers, academics, and workers, some have expressed worry over an impending robot apocalypse poised to eliminate countless jobs. While research has found these concerns to be overblown, the real challenges of the future of work are unfolding around us – low pay, unsafe conditions, and deteriorating worker power – conditions that inhibit security and exacerbate inequality.
While the challenges that define the “future of work” have shifted, some solutions are more promising than ever. Some who warned of automation pointed to a universal basic income as a means of providing cash to replace wages. Regardless of robots, the potential for universal cash transfers is more promising than ever – not to replace employment, but to facilitate it. The future, it turns out, has not given us a shortage of jobs. It has given us a shortage of good jobs – and cash transfers are not a consolation for displacement, but a tool to rebalance power between workers and employers. Instead of letting more benefits expire or establishing more stringent eligibility criteria, we need to be introducing and making permanent universal programs that establish a floor of security upon which to build a robust, sustainable, and equitable labor market.
The vacant job postings that have filled recent headlines reflect the challenges of today’s labor market. These unfilled jobs are characterized by stagnant wages, unpredictable schedules, lack of voice in the workplace, and little investment in workers’ careers. Work in these jobs brings the constant uncertainty of not knowing whether you can pay rent, cover utilities, afford groceries, access transportation, or seek medical care, preventing planning for the future and pushing long-term financial health further out of reach.
The foundational security provided by cash assistance allows workers to escape this trap into promising full-time employment. It provides a level of certainty that allows workers to act with dignity, whether that means taking on a new job, organizing for change at their workplace, or pursuing training opportunities. Instead of replacing work entirely, cash transfer programs have the potential to empower workers to demand more from their jobs.
Fears that cash assistance disincentivizes work or fosters dependence are unfounded. In fact, the opposite is true – providing a basic level of financial security promotes employment. Financial security does not present a threat to employment, but to low-wage, unstable work that itself threatens the health of the economy. Studies of cash transfer programs have consistently shown improvements in wellbeing, including food security and mental health – and they have increasingly shown the positive impacts on employment. One of the highest-profile cash transfer pilots, which distributed $500 per month to 125 families in Stockton, CA, found recipients were more likely to land full-time employment than comparable households that did not receive the payments. Regular cash payments gave the families the financial and emotional capacity to set and attain goals. Analysis of Alaska’s Permanent Fund, which has provided universal payments to residents for 40 years, found that full-time employment is unaffected by the payments, while part-time employment and entrepreneurial activity have increased. In Finland, unconditional cash transfer recipients were more likely to find full-time work than Unemployment Insurance recipients. And in a game scenario, the only cases that cash transfer recipients would work less is when they’re pursuing training and education opportunities.
The more universal a program is, the more likely it is to create a common floor. Promoting a healthy labor market necessitates removing barriers and limitations and making assistance more accessible, more universal, and longer lasting. Benefit eligibility is too often about exclusion – about who does not qualify. Since any restriction is likely to disproportionately exclude those most in need, we desperately need benefits that are characterized by universality instead of exclusion.
Making COVID-19-era expansions to existing programs permanent, including Unemployment Insurance, is a step forward. Expanding tax-credit benefits, including the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, goes further. Universal cash transfers, currently being piloted in at least 11 cities with state-wide legislation pending in New Mexico and California, do the most to establish a floor upon which to build a healthy labor market.
The future of work needs good jobs for all – jobs that can provide stability, dignity, a career path, and a voice for change. Cash transfers are not a threat to employment; they are a threat to bad jobs that trap people in uncertainty. Ensuring basic financial security equips workers to organize, speak up, set goals, and take risks, to demand the conditions that should define the future of work for all.
Tweet While the challenges that define the #futureofwork have shifted, some solutions are more promising than ever. Cash transfers are an example of that. Read more from @shellysteward’s latest with @AspenFutureWork.
Tweet .@shellysteward: “Instead of letting more #benefits expire or establishing more stringent eligibility criteria, we need to be introducing permanent universal programs that establish a floor of security to build an #equitable #labormarket.”
Tweet This #LaborDay and beyond, we’re talking about how providing a basic level of financial security promotes employment. @shellysteward of @AspenFutureWork writes about how cash transfers can provide equitable solutions for the #futureofwork.
Tweet Fears that cash assistance disincentivizes work or fosters dependence are unfounded. That’s why cash transfers are an important step in the #futureofwork. @shellysteward of @AspenFutureWork shows why.
Tweet As we think about the #futureofwork, it’s clear that “Promoting a healthy #labormarket necessitates removing #barriers and limitations and making assistance more #accessible, more #universal, and longer lasting.” @shellysteward elaborates.
Tweet “Ensuring basic #financialsecurity equips #workers to organize, speak up, set goals, & take risks, to demand the conditions that should define the #futureofwork for all.” @shellysteward on the #equitable path forward: cash transfers.
The Future of Work Initiative aims to identify, develop, and amplify solutions that address the challenges of today while building toward a future in which workers are safe, empowered, and equipped to thrive in our changing world. The Future of Work Initiative is an initiative of the Economic Opportunities Program.
The Economic Opportunities Program advances strategies, policies, and ideas to help low- and moderate-income people thrive in a changing economy. Follow us on social media and join our mailing list to stay up-to-date on publications, blog posts, events, and other announcements.