A Discussion on Basic Income

From The Catalyst, Summer 2016

Two CPJ supporters explain their arguments for and against implementing a basic income, a system where the government ensures that everyone in Canada receives a certain level of income.

Now Is the Time for a Basic Income

By Jamie Swift

Many see a basic income as a social justice tool to help people trapped in poverty. It is that. But it’s much more. It’s a big idea, steeped in radical hope. An idea that can do much more than government policies that tinker at the fringes.

Now is not the time for tinkering. We need to confront two daunting challenges: sharing Canada’s unequally divided riches and stopping global warming. We need to usher in a low-carbon economy in which wealth and work are shared more fairly.

Canada is becoming ever richer. Meanwhile machines are displacing workers, jobs are being exported, and food banks are getting busier. Clearly, we face a crisis.

According to Milton Friedman, an intellectual godfather of neoliberalism, “only a crisis, real or perceived, produces real change. When a crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” Well, basic income has been lying around for a while. As our Kingston Action Group for a Basic Income Guarantee says, “now is the time.”

A basic income should be comprehensive and should emphasize social justice. This may seem like a politically unlikely alternative to Friedman’s survival-of-the-fittest logic of market fundamentalism. But it offers hope, not only for those trapped in poverty but also for the growing class of Canadians trapped in temporary and part-time work.

A basic income can be part of a transformative program that rejects austerity and neo-liberalism. It would promote the idea that a life is no longer tied to a job. Or two jobs. Or three. And it would offer a fresh new common sense, valuing the nature of work, not its profitability.

It must provide a livable income. Not a minimum income. It cannot subsidize employers by topping up low wages at public expense. Rather it needs to be part of an inclusive social support system. One that embraces affordable housing, child care, dental care, and pharma care.

The LEAP Manifesto put it well: “Since so much of the labour of caretaking – whether of people or the planet – is currently unpaid, we call for a vigorous debate about the introduction of a universal basic annual income.”

A basic income will help us make common cause for the common good.

Jamie Swift is the author of The Vimy Trap: Or How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War. He works for the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul in Kingston, Ont.

A Basic Income May Make Us Worse Off

By Mary Boyd

Canada’s existing social programs are full of potential. And they can be improved quickly to serve peoples’ needs and eliminate inequality and poverty. For example, the Canada Child Benefit promised last fall was rolled out on July 1 of this year.

Meanwhile, there are still many questions about the feasibility of a basic income. The math just isn’t there. An annual basic income of $15,000 per person would cost Nova Scotia $14.1 billion. Yet poverty currently costs $1.5 to $2.2 billion. The province’s total revenue is $10.3 billion, of which only $6.5 billion is raised directly. A nationwide basic income would cost roughly $540 billion out of the total government revenue of $745 billion, according Dr. Christine Saulnier of CCPA Nova Scotia. And if it were taxed or clawed back, a family could find themselves worse off than before.

Will a society based on a basic income model provide better work? The jury is still out. Significantly fewer people work in agriculture today than did a hundred years ago. And machines are taking over many others’ jobs. But this threat is not a crisis. There are still many existing needs that must be met by workers. These include improved care for the sick, the frail elderly, the severely handicapped, and the mentally ill. But we also need workers to provide better quality day care, improved public education, and a host of recreation needs such as new public parks with programs and security. And, with investments in a green economy, we can create millions of good, well-paying jobs.

But we don’t need a basic income to do this. Instead, we must pressure our governments to fulfill the common good, reduce our carbon footprint, and provide the above-mentioned services as part of our social justice obligation.

Why not, as the CCPA’s Armine Yalnizyan suggests, invest in six key programs to improve health (housing, early childhood education, oral health, pharma care, public transit, and post-secondary education) at a total national cost of $14.1 billion?

A basic income pilot project would be difficult to set up and evaluate, and perhaps impossible to scale up to a national level. It would also employ well-paid professionals over long periods of time while people in poverty would wait for uncertain results that might leave them worse off.

But key investments in these six areas are much more feasible, less expensive, and they are needed now.

Mary Boyd is the founder and coordinator of the MacKillop Centre for Social Justice in Charlottetown, PEI.

Check out CPJ’s infographic, The Case for a Guranteeed Income, at cpj.ca/gli-infographic.