Basic income and veganism

Basic income demonstration in Berlin, 2013. Credit: stanjourdan,, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Systemic, radical changes in the United States are now in the cards. You can feel it in the news and in the streets, even with COVID-19 acting as a damper on protests. But we haven’t had much discussion of what specifically these changes should be. We know—though mainstream economists still haven’t figured it out—that economic growth isn’t the answer: we have hit the limits to growth. We need a basic income: a guaranteed cash payment to all adult citizens sufficient to support a minimal lifestyle.

Now you’re probably saying to yourself, “OK, basic income: possibly a good idea. But what does this have to do with veganism?”

By helping those at the bottom of the income ladder, the basic income undercuts industries that rely on low-paid, unrewarding work—like the meat-packing industry, or like fast-food establishments such as MacDonald’s.

Robin Hood and Maid Marian (19th century poster, public domain image)

The basic income should be a straightforward Robin Hood measure — take from the rich and give to the poor. We have vast and growing economic inequality, which compounds the pervasive racism long inherent in the economy. I wonder if I’ll ever get tired of citing this statistic: the average relative wage (your salary compared to the GDP) has been declining since the 1960’s. Even real wages have stagnated. Real wages for unskilled labor have actually declined since 1980.

How do you pay for a basic income? Piece of cake: by raising taxes. We would need a steep progressive income tax or wealth tax (such as proposed by Senator Elizabeth Warren) that would soak the rich. We need a few more details right here, but you get the idea.

The basic income could be revenue-neutral from the point of view of the government. Taxes would go up for everyone. But for people at the lower end of the income spectrum, the basic income would be greater than their somewhat higher taxes, so they would come out ahead. Somewhere in the middle, the basic income would exactly cancel out their increase in taxes, and above this level, people would start to pay more taxes than they have now. The greater your income, the bigger your tax hike.

This is basic social justice. If you’re homeless and unemployed, a basic income of $1200 / month will take you from zero income to $14,400 a year. So, point number one, this will solve the crisis of homelessness right off the bat. (It won’t completely do away with homelessness because there’s always mental illness and things like that.) But, point number two, it will also benefit everyone at the lower end of the income spectrum. Employers will know that their citizen workers now have an alternative to homelessness — they’re not out on the streets if they quit their jobs or are fired.

And here’s where the benefit for veganism comes in. The businesses that will suffer the most from such a measure will be those that rely on low-paid, soul-destroying work. People mostly take such work to avoid an even worse alternative, being homeless and unemployed. With a basic income, many of them will probably chuck their jobs entirely, or take an extended break while going back to school or trying to figure out a better way to make a living. Employers would no longer be able to apply the financial cudgel of homelessness to their employees.

Slaughterhouses already have some of the highest turnover rates in the nation. By U.S. Government Accountability Office from Washington, DC, United States – Figure 7: Workers in a Hog Slaughter and Processing Plant Use Hooks and Other Tools, Public Domain, Link

What kinds of low-paid, soul-destroying work would be the first to go? Here’s two: slaughterhouse work and fast-food workers. Some people would likely continue to work at a slaughterhouse, but many of them are going to head home. Even today, slaughterhouses have some of the highest turnover of any business and is the most dangerous occupation (highest injury and death rate) in the U. S. Without the threat of homelessness, turnover would accelerate dramatically, and employers at such institutions would have to improve pay and working conditions.

But not all low-paying jobs will be eliminated! The basic income would make it easier for qualified people to take on low-paying jobs that are intrinsically rewarding, jobs that some people love even though they don’t really pay. Like, for example, being a music teacher. Or a stay-at-home parent! Or an animal rights activist!

This is inherent social justice, because the people who will benefit the most from such a proposal are those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Therefore, by definition, those who will benefit the most will be those who have suffered the most. Thus, it is inherently anti-racist. Racism discriminates in ways that are hard to quantify and is so uniformly distributed across America that it is hard to even tell exactly how much it’s operating in every case. Mostly, this means minorities, but by definition, the basic income will benefit everyone at the lower end of the spectrum, including, for example, poor whites living in Appalachia. This will also be anti-sexist. It will benefit women and anyone who undertakes what has been traditionally regarded as unpaid “women’s work” — things like housework and taking care of the kids.

We are at the beginning of revolutionary social change. Vegans would benefit by embracing this proposal which helps restore a basic sense of racial and gender equality to the country. Plus, it will make it easier to live at the lower end of the income spectrum and hurt the slaughterhouse and fast-food industries. Being an activist for veganism or animal rights would become somewhat more lucrative. What’s not to love?

This doesn’t answer all possible objections and there are some important details we haven’t addressed. But I would encourage vegans to support the basic income as a way of restoring racial, sexual, and economic justice.

12 Replies to “Basic income and veganism”

  1. I’ve been working at Starbucks for almost 2 years. Starbucks stores are basically fast food. But I actually enjoy the work. It is my chosen retirement gig. You make more than basic income if you work there full time, have health benefits (even for part time workers) and you can get a bachelor’s degree on Starbucks. I’ve also worked at Panera and liked that. Is McDonald’s worse? Before you knock “fast food” as unrewarding, you should try it.

    1. O. K., working at Starbuck’s isn’t quite the same as working at a slaughterhouse! But the basic income would still chip away at the staggering inequality in the United States, provide a choice for those for whom such work is now a necessity rather than a preference, and make it easier to live at the low end of the income spectrum.

      1. No doubt Keith and see my response to Laura please. Elitism is among our enemies. If a person (not meaning you, Keith) looks down on a barista or a maid or a loading dock worker, etc, he’s not likely to have high regard for animals. And yet I know affluent vegans who are clearly snobs; but their disdain for the poor is primarily because the poor eat meat. This has always angered me about fellow vegans and it’s why I’m no longer hosting vegan FB pages and groups. As for taxes, raise the taxable wage cap on social security and reduce military spending and we could afford just about anything. Some gal making fifty million a year only pays SS tax on about a hundred grand or so. If you earn a billion you still only pay the tax on the first (roughly) hundred grand, etc. It is crazy.

    2. Good for you Laura! I’m a blue collar man myself. With a UBI, people who love being baristas or janitors or security guards can better afford to do these jobs they love and be happy! Those who hate such work can hang it up and find new work. That’s the beauty of it. And what is unskilled labor? I know nothing about that. I was a baggage/cargo handler for a huge airline. The tarmac workers, contrary to reputation, are remarkably talented – lots coordinated and athletic young men who played guitars and pianos or could draw and paint with great skill. These “ramp” operations involve a number of skills and there’s much to learn. The term “unskilled labor” really needs to go. The term is a justification for paying peanuts for hard, complicated work. If you haven’t worked on a tarmac or in a factory, you have no idea how much these men and women have to learn. I’m here addressing not you,Laura, but those who don’t know better. If you work for any company, you have lots to learn.

    3. For those of us who might want to know what it’s like working at a low-paying job without actually taking one, check out Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich.

  2. One thing to mention too, is that taxes may need even need to be increased as much as anticipated to roll out something like basic income. With basic income you would likely be able to get rid of heavily bureaucratic government services like employment insurance, welfare, etc. Basic income could likely entirely replace these services without the needless bureaucracy. Plus you are also putting money directly into the hands of the people, instead of relying on failed trickle-down economics by bailing out banks and businesses. It is for some of these reasons that even free market capitalists like Milton Friedman advocated a basic income for all.

  3. What are your thoughts on food stamps? Do you include food stamps in your definition of universal basic income? Vegan food stamps, i.e., food stamps that cannot be used to purchase animal products, seem to pose little conceptual problem for vegan statists, but for legislators like Cory Booker in the US (is he the only vegan in the 116th Congress?), the situation is more difficult – the majority of his food stamp constituents are probably not vegan and might object to the restriction. Thanks.

    1. I would want the basic income to be sufficiently generous that it would replace food stamps. You can’t use food stamps to pay your water bill or rent, but you can use a basic income for whatever you need.

      We’ve got a long way to go before we would restrict meat consumption, but I would use different restrictions that would apply to everyone, not just food stamp recipients. Just making slaughterhouses safe for their workers would probably shut down most of them during the pandemic.

    2. I have been vegan for many years now; but the thought of using the threat of starvation or poverty to force someone into a vegetarian or vegan diet is appalling to me. Talk about dominating the poor. That’s humiliating! How would any vegan feel (ie: one suffering from abject poverty) about being taken in by a meat eating friend who said “you can live here if you eat what I tell you to eat!” ? By which of course he would mean pork chops, cheeseburgers, eggs etc. That’s dehumanizing and reflects an ultra-authoritarian streak in some vegans! I’m not sure why but many religious vegans seem to display this authoritarianism. Because they believe God is on their side?

      1. I empathize with your compassionate reciprocity but I’m not sure I would argue the two are morally equivalent, Drew. Nor am I ready to say that Congress or the Colorado legislature shouldn’t be debating the issue because it would necessarily reflect a dehumanizing and authoritarian streak on the part of vegan legislators!

        Claims of guidance from God (e.g., as the still small voice of conscience in one’s heart), planetary limits to growth, systemic poverty and mass starvation are all compelling reasons for more people to choose veg diets in my book. But this is not the same as claiming that God wants all people to be vegans and that every other way of life is inferior.

        Of course, if you are a legislator in a constitutionally vegan state, than there is little need to think about whether or not to prevent the purchase of animal products with food stamps, but soda and similar products might be a source of debate, unless Keith’s argument wins the day in the legislature, and we avoid food stamps altogether by voting for a sufficiently generous universal basic income. We would still, however, need to deal with the question of dissidents, immigrants and asylum seekers who want to live in our state but do not want to follow a vegan constitution.

        If you are a Vegan Party legislator in a libertarian state, then your constituents very likely support the idea of better vegan food stamp benefits, putting more people on vegan food stamps, or both. But if you are a vegan legislator in a non-vegan party in a libertarian state, then precisely the objections you raise seem likely to be raised by a majority of your constituents.

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