October 1, 2016

QJ Politics: A case for basic income

Today, a staggering 14 per cent of the Canadian population live in poverty.

On its own, this number is worrisome, but considering this was precisely the same percentage of Canadians who lived in poverty 40 years ago, it’s downright terrifying.

Not only does Canada score poorly in addressing poverty across the most advanced economies in the world, but it does even worse in addressing child poverty.

The most egregiously affected by poverty in Canada are vulnerable groups including single parents and recent immigrants, but none more than Aboriginal children.

If our record on child poverty wasn’t already concerning, consider that 50 per cent of Canadian Aboriginal children today live below the poverty line.

Add to this that that our government claws back welfare benefits as soon a member of a family on welfare gets a part-time job or attends post-secondary education — giving them little incentive to better themselves in the first place.

Our current welfare system not only fails to eradicate poverty, it effectively reproduces it.

Instead of addressing poverty head-on, we spend billions on programs to address substance abuse, family violence, housing and everything in between. If poverty was a wound, Canada is the idiot doctor who’s done everything except stop the bleeding.

There’s a very simple solution to eradicating poverty in Canada: a guaranteed basic income.

Instead of every Canadian receiving a state income, only those below the poverty line would be topped-up.

In addition to tackling poverty directly, a federal basic income is both cheaper and allows billions of provincial tax dollars spent on social programs to be redirected to education, healthcare and infrastructure.

Despite knowing that poverty is the most reliable predictor of trouble with the law and early and extended use of health care services, we nevertheless spend billions on programs addressing the ancillaries.

Replacing the expensive and bureaucratic labyrinth that is our current welfare system with a basic income administered through a negative income tax model means welfare is no longer dehumanizing.

Instead of treating welfare recipients as burdens to society, we treat recipients of a basic income the same we do recipients of healthcare.

With only a few needing expensive healthcare at any particular time, we don’t question the diet or lifestyles of those who fall ill.

What if people that are guaranteed an income won’t just stay at home? Canada already tested this effect some 40 years ago in Dauphin, Manitoba with the Mincome experiment, and the answer was no.

From 1974-79, every Dauphin family unit received monthly cheques, no strings attached. For five years, poverty was non-existent.

Mincome proved to save money in hospital visits relating to work injury, domestic abuse and mental health because young people didn’t need to contribute to family income.

Opponents worried about the ‘free-loader’ effect should note the lion’s share of those requiring assistance are working but simply don’t earn enough. We can’t expect people to pull themselves up from their bootstraps if they can’t afford the boots in the first place.

It’s worth noting that basic income isn’t a new idea, particularly in Canada. The Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) program, which was implemented in the 1970s and seniors are still guaranteed today, for example, reduced poverty among senior citizens in Ontario from 34 per cent to three per cent in two years.

Basic income has also had its advocates across the political spectrum throughout history. It may be the only thing you could get Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr. and Milton Friedman to all agree on.

Today, the Liberal Party, the Green Party and, perhaps the most vocal, Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, all advocate in favour of a basic income in Canada.

It was in 1971 that David Croll sounded the alarm on poverty and the need for a basic income.

He wrote, “The grim fact is that one Canadian in four lacks sufficient income to maintain a basic standard of living. No nation can achieve true greatness if it lacks the courage and determination to undertake the surgery necessary to remove the cancer of poverty from its body politic.” His words ring true today, louder than ever.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.