By Evelyn Forget
The term basic income, in Canada, has come to mean an income-tested benefit—a guaranteed income close to the poverty line for those with no other income, and a reduced benefit for low-income workers.
Basic income does not replace public services like healthcare and supports for people with disabilities. It streamlines and enhances cash transfers.
The benefits of basic income have been documented in multiple studies. Mental and physical health improves. People invest in education. There is no evidence that overall work effort declines when a basic income is offered, and there is some evidence that basic income helps people move from precarious work to long-term employment.
Studies remind us that when low-income people have money, they spend it in local communities and create jobs for their neighbours and families, which jumpstarts recovery from pandemic-induced job losses. Basic income allows people to stand up for their rights as workers and tenants without fear of retribution.
Ironically, the strongest arguments in support of basic income appear in a recent report of the B.C. Basic Income Panel that recommends targeted basic incomes for people with disabilities, survivors of domestic violence, and kids aging out of foster care but stops short of recommending a basic income for everyone now living in poverty.
There are no fewer than 194 uncoordinated programs offered by federal, provincial, and municipal authorities that offer support, in cash and in kind, to low-income people in B.C. alone, and B.C. is not unique. Programs have different entry points, eligibility requirements, and regulations designed by “experts” who believe they know best, requiring desperate people to navigate complex bureaucracies.
Consequently, many people do not receive the benefits to which they are entitled. This system is so ineffective that tent cities and food banks proliferate, and we treat the consequences of poverty in our emergency departments and jails.
The promise of ever more “wrap-around care,” coupled with administrative tweaks, must send shivers up the spines of people who know that public services rarely meet their needs: Indigenous mothers with kids in care, Black youths encountering racism at school, women incarcerated for poverty-related crimes, and trans and racialized people deprived of culturally appropriate medical care.
The more distant someone is from mainstream culture, the more they need money to address their unique needs in their own way—and the more problematic the advice of “experts” becomes.
Indigenous people have been victimized by coercive and ineffective bureaucracies for generations; consequently, the Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women recommends a basic income for all Canadians. Basic income was the first call of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Critics point to the implementation challenges of basic income, but the recent CERB delivered a responsive benefit quickly, respectfully, and efficiently by relying on individual income reports and verifying afterwards. The glitches in roll-out occurred because applicants required $5,000 of (poorly defined) income in the previous twelve months.
A basic income would not be conditional on past earnings, and defining income is surely within the capacity of policymakers. Up-to-date tax returns are not required, and people without Internet access can reach administrators directly.
Critics exaggerate the costs of a basic income by breathlessly telling us how much it would cost to send a cheque to everyone, rich or poor, each month—an approach that virtually no one advocates—but costing exercises on well-designed programs show much lower costs.
Taxpayers are already paying for the hundreds of failing programs that currently exist; is it too much to ask that their contributions be spent effectively?
Basic income requires federal leadership, but Canada has a long tradition of allowing provinces to opt out, with compensation, to establish their own programs as long as they meet federal standards.
A half-century ago, ordinary Canadians of diverse backgrounds came together to challenge entrenched interests and the status quo; they demanded universal healthcare, which transformed our society forever. As Tommy Douglas reminded us, “It’s not too late to build a better world.”