How do you like the idea of receiving regular income from the government, with no questions asked and no conditions attached?
The concept of a guaranteed income has been around for a long time, and child and youth advocate Adrienne Montani says it should be part of discussions on policies aimed at addressing poverty.
Montani made the suggestion on the sidelines of a Vancouver media event held on November 24, which showcased Statistics Canada figures indicating that for the seventh year in a row in 2008, British Columbia had the worst child-poverty rate in Canada, according to a measure of poverty that uses after-tax income.
“I like the idea of concentrating the kind of support that families would get into one payment,” Montani told the Georgia Straight. “The reason I like it is because right now, families don’t even know what they’re entitled to. And they [benefits] all start to fall away. Sometimes when you hit like $35,000 a year [in income], you lose your child-care subsidy, maybe. Your child tax benefit starts to go and you actually find yourself cash poor, and poorer than you would be if maybe you were not working.”
The adoption of a guaranteed income policy wasn’t included in the wide range of recommendations made by First Call: B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition in its latest report on child poverty. These recommendations include raising the minimum wage to $11 per hour and the federal government’s Canada Child Tax Benefit to $5,400 per child.
“Our coalition, First Call, hasn’t discussed it as a concept,” said Montani, a former Vancouver school trustee who is the provincial coordinator of the group.
However, Montani noted that she personally feels a guaranteed income policy would prevent families from losing benefits due to changes in their earnings. “If it was concentrated in one benefit, then you could have the coherence,” she said. “I like it that way.”
In November 2009, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released a paper examining the concept.
James Mulvale, associate dean of the faculty of social work at the University of Regina, coauthored the paper with UBC law professor Margot Young. While the two have different views on the idea, they noted in Possibilities and Prospects: The Debate Over a Guaranteed Income that they both “agree that the question of ensuring universal, unconditional, and adequate economic security for all people in Canada is critical”. The paper also noted that proponents of the idea believe that such an approach is a “fix to poverty”.
In a phone interview from Regina, Mulvale explained that the concept of having an “unconditional, universal, adequate level of economic support for everybody” has many advantages “if it’s designed properly”.
According to Mulvale, the country’s separate systems of income support and welfare do not provide seamless support for people in need, and are often delivered on a piecemeal basis.
“We’re not doing a good job now, and we need to think about some other different approaches,” Mulvale told the Straight.
Tracy Johnson, a single parent, knows only too well the difficulty of getting by on limited means. Speaking during the presentation by First Call of its child-poverty report, Johnson explained that she is on welfare, and that she doesn’t have enough for her five children.
It isn’t just parents on welfare who are having a tough time, according to First Call’s report. The document also noted that the “vast majority” of B.C.’s 121,000 poor children live in families with some income from paid work. “In 2008, one-third of them—40,600 children—lived in families with at least one adult working full-time, full-year,” the coalition’s report stated.
According to another paper coauthored by Mulvale, there are two basic guaranteed income models. One is the negative income-tax model, in which the government supplements incomes so people can rise above the poverty line. The second is the so-called “universal demogrant” model, in which all citizens receive a lump sum from the government.
The document, titled Income Security for All Canadians: Understanding Guaranteed Income, noted that the country has a long history of debates about this social model. It recounted how, during the 1930s, then Alberta premier William Aberhart sought to implement a system of regular cash payments from the provincial government to residents. However, this proved difficult to implement because of the economic depression at the time, as well as the federal government’s resistance to such a program.
Mulvale pointed out that at present, the country already has in place components of a guaranteed income system. He cited as examples the old-age pension, child tax benefits for low-income families, the rebate on the goods and services tax, and employment insurance.
“In terms of a strategy to move us towards something like a guaranteed income system”¦we need to take that step-by-step, incremental approach,” Mulvale said. “Others had argued that we could bring in one program that could replace all the other ones. I don’t think that’s politically feasible, and I also think it’s risky. Coming up with even a politically doable, a one-program-fits-all, and replaces everything else, I think that you might end up with people being worse off if they’re losing supports like health insurance and social housing and help for early childhood education.”