At CPJ we have always maintained that an end to poverty in Canada can only be attained through a suite of comprehensive, rights-based policies. Poverty must be addressed as a matter of health, employment, education, food security, housing, and income. But even more fundamentally, it must be addressed as a matter of human rights and dignity.
To end poverty, we need a comprehensive suite of universally-accessible public programs, regulatory standards, and fair taxation. No one program or sector can do this alone, including basic income. Income alone cannot solve a lack of housing stock or childcare spaces. It cannot replace supportive, culturally responsive, professional services. Advocates of basic income agree that adequate income must be provided in tandem with other rights-based policies and programs to ensure people get the supports that meet their needs.
The experiences of people who were given a chance to try a basic income should not be easily dismissed. Participants in the 2017-2018 Ontario pilot program speak of a sense of dignity, hope, and freedom from chronic stress. Feeling like they had room to breathe, being able to care for their basic needs while also investing in their futures. To acknowledge the power of this one program is not to negate the need for other social services. Rather, it speaks to the dire need for change from our typical models of social assistance.
CPJ believes that basic income is a powerful policy tool in changing not only people’s incomes, but our whole economic system.
Our current patchwork system of social assistance programs varies greatly from one province or territory to another. There are a few commonalities, however. None of them provide an adequate income. All of them have eligibility criteria that force claimants to jump through hoops to prove themselves “deserving.” This leaves many in need with no assistance at all. Far from honouring the inherent rights or dignity of all people, we hear from many applicants that they feel shamed, denigrated, and treated like criminals.
Among its many ills, social assistance as it exists today perpetuates the idea that people should just “get off welfare and get a job.” Yet at the same time, it is financially perilous to return to work because of aggressive clawback rates on any earned income. This, combined with poor labour standards and a lack of access to health insurance and affordable childcare, means many people simply cannot afford to go back to work. The choice between a minimum wage job with no health insurance and increased travel and childcare costs versus inadequate social assistance with some health insurance and perhaps fewer expenses traps many in poverty.
Basic income pilot projects, on the other hand, show no evidence that people were deterred from working. They provided people with the security to take time away from work to improve education and training so they could seek better jobs. They gradually scaled back their basic income benefits with earned income. The pilots suggest that most people want to work, and will, given the right opportunity. But basic income also supports those outside the workforce and those working part-time, whether for personal reasons or because of care-giving responsibilities.
While our current social assistance programs are clearly flawed, designing a successful basic income program is no simple matter. But the complexity of this task is equal to its potential: by beginning with the premise that all people deserve a guaranteed basic income, whether or not they participate in the labour force, whether or not they have a diagnosed disability, and whether or not they pass some kind of bureaucratic test of worthiness, we change the narrative. We no longer separate people living in poverty into the “deserving” or “undeserving” poor. Instead, we recognize that all members of society have rights.
The process of designing such a program of income security and complementary supports invites us to reimagine how —and why—our economy and labour markets function as a whole. What if our economy valued the contributions to society of unpaid labour, volunteerism, and actual people outside the labour market? What if our economy didn’t force people to stay trapped in dangerous or underpaid, insecure working conditions just to put food on the table? What if our economy had a builtin stabilizer to support people through times of boom and bust, the transition to a low-carbon economy, and unforeseen environmental or health crises?
Mere tinkering with our existing income support systems will not take us where we need to go. The good news is that we have some models of success to guide us.
CPJ advocates for a basic income guarantee that builds on the demonstrated success of programs like the Canada Child Benefit, the Guaranteed Income Supplement, and Old Age Security. These programs have offered a kind of basic income to parents and seniors, two groups generally deemed “deserving” by society at large. While critical improvements are still needed to expand the eligibility and adequacy of these programs, they have demonstrated measurable improvements to both the incidence and depth of poverty experienced by seniors, parents, and children.
Comparatively, we have seen little change in poverty rates for single adults aged 25 to 64. Many are ineligible for existing benefits or remain trapped in poverty because of the inadequacy of benefits and aggressive clawbacks. CPJ therefore supports the proposal of a basic income guarantee for people aged 16 to 64. The lower age limit is intended to provide support to youth in foster care or wards of the state who are aging out of care.
Recently, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) demonstrated that when the government has the will to deliver income assistance to people across the country, they find a way. The double-edged sword of this initiative was the sharp contrast between the amount deemed necessary for people receiving existing social assistance and disability benefits and the amount offered by the CERB. This kind of disparity is a telling indication that the government believes some people to be more “deserving” or trustworthy when it comes to income assistance. There were also problems to be fixed related to eligibility, clawbacks, and clear communication.
Yet even with some unresolved challenges, the government pivoted based on feedback from communities. The CERB demonstrated the government’s ability to transfer cash quickly to individuals and made clear the benefits of delivering generous, timely income assistance to provide stability and increase resilience, both in terms of economics and public health.
There are many details to be worked out in designing an effective, equitable basic income program, including technical requirements, agreements between federal and other jurisdictions, the amount of income support to be provided, and how to gradually scale it back based on earned income. But Canada has the resources and know-how needed to develop a federally-funded basic income guarantee now. A lot of excellent work is being done by groups like the Basic Income Canada Network, the All Party Anti-Poverty Caucus, and a number of Senators to develop fully-costed models of basic income and suggestions for accompanying legislation. CPJ is proud to support these efforts and to engage in discussions that consider the interconnections between basic income and our policy areas of poverty, climate justice, and refugee rights.
Far from being a silver bullet, we view basic income as one spoke in the wheel, alongside universally-accessible, publicly funded programs; strengthened regulations and minimum standards grounded in human rights; and fairer taxation. Guided by people with lived experiences of poverty, including some who participated in previous basic income pilots, together we are working toward an income security program designed to build equity and honour the rights and dignity of all people.
Let’s dream big. Let justice roll!