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Basic Income Could Be the Safety Net Mistreated Employees Need

A universal basic income (UBI) policy could change how we evaluate the meaning and quality of work in our society.

Jennifer Anniston as TGI Fridays waitress 'Joanna' quits her job in the 1999 film 'Office Space'.

What is work? Clare Ozich, Executive Director of the Australian Institute of Employment Rights (and co-editor of the Green Agenda), considers how a universal basic income (UBI) policy could change how we evaluate the meaning of work in our society in her essay 'The emancipatory potential of a Universal Basic Income'.


Advocates of UBI believe by setting a standard of living through a yearly income for everyone—it would create a floor no one would fall beneath, eliminating poverty. How we implement it successfully is still being tested in countries around the world. (Studies are currently being planned or done in the Netherlands, Finland, and Canada.) But the challenge UBI presents is also a conduit to a larger discussion surrounding the nature of inequality within our society and how we might be able to fix it.

Ozich says the nature of work is changing. Automation is reducing employment in factories and threatens to make many workers unemployed in the next 25 years. It’s important for governments across the world to start considering how we transition. One way is to reduce working hours, another is to redefine what we consider work.

There’s so much more to a person than the day-job they perform. There’s much work our society benefits from which is often unpaid. “I think the most exciting aspect of the debate on UBI is that it opens up a discussion about how we conceive of work; and what value we place on what forms of work,” Ozich writes. “UBI forces us to think about these questions. One of the critiques of UBI is that it is giving people something for nothing. Is it really? Aren’t there already multiple ways we all contribute to our society all the time outside the narrow concept of paid employment?”

Parenthood and child-rearing, as well as volunteer work, and the work and time we put into conservation are all forms of work that help our society in many ways, but we often value employment status—who signs your paycheck—higher than these after-hours projects we partake in.

Kathi Weeks, author of The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, describes what makes UBI so appealing:

“One of the reasons I am so attracted to the demand for a basic income is because of the way that it challenges some of the basic tenets of the work ethic—what I would describe as that cultural overvaluation of work that sings the praises of hard work as an inherent value, highest calling and individual moral obligation. This longstanding ethic of work remains a crucial ideological support for an economic system that accumulates great wealth for a few and lifetimes of poorly paid and all consuming waged work for the rest ... Where a strong work ethic is a key element of productivity, our willingness to call these values and modes of being into question is a potentially effective mode of rebellion.”

A UBI could be an effective tool for people to use in order to ask for better working conditions and fair wages. It could act as a safety net so that the fear of job loss would no longer mute requests for better pay or hours, especially among society's most vulnerable workers. It’s a movement that has a message centered around creating a fairer start for everyone, and challenging misconceptions surrounding the very nature of work. It’s an idea which has had promising outcomes for society in at least one past study.

A study in Manitoba, Canada done back in the 1970s provides us with an idea of what a small community receiving basic income would look like. Many believe people would stop working if given a guaranteed wage and some did in Manitoba. But when Evelyn Forget, an economist and professor at the University of Manitoba, looked at why, she began to see how cyclical poverty could be.

There was a 9% reduction in working hours among two main groups of citizens. These people were new mothers, using their additional income to extend their maternity leaves and spend more time with their infants, and teenage boys were using that income to stay in school.

“When we interviewed people, we discovered that prior to the experiment, a lot of people from low-income families, a lot of boys in particular, were under a fair amount of family pressure to become self-supporting when they turned 16 and leave school,” Forget told PRI in an interview. “When Mincome came along, those families decided that they could afford to keep their sons in high school just a little bit longer.”

When you're looking for a better life, a little extra cash can go a long way. A UBI has the power to change many people’s lives. However, time will tell if this radical new policy is feasible.

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Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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