Call it what you want – a basic income, guaranteed annual income, or guaranteed livable income – it’s an idea that’s gaining momentum both in Canada and abroad as countries such as Switzerland, India, and Brazil begin to test and consider such a program.
The idea behind a guaranteed income is relatively straightforward: scrap our existing web of income security programs (e.g. welfare, certain refundable tax credits, Old Age Security, etc.) and replace it with an enhanced single monthly payment available to anyone and everyone as a right of citizenship, without any conditions or need to apply. The amount of the income guarantee would be high enough to ensure that no one would live in poverty. It would reduce bureaucracy. And it would remove the stigma of our current welfare system.
The basic income guarantee would be scaled back as a person’s income rises. Those with no or little earned income would have the security of knowing they could never fall below the guaranteed income line.
The benefits are numerous. For people who would otherwise rely on our current patchwork of social assistance programs, higher incomes would provide a more dignified existence. For those between jobs, it would provide the stability to look for something better without the pressure of taking the first low-paying job that comes along. A guaranteed income would allow people to care for their children or loved ones without having to worry about where the money will come from. Others would be enabled to volunteer for charitable activities and get involved in their community. Students could focus on their education without needing to balance a part-time job.
In short, a guaranteed income would allow for fuller participation in family and society. It’s a bold idea that could help us fulfill our public justice responsibility towards our fellow citizen, recognizing one another’s inherent worth and right to a life of dignity regardless of one’s position or role in society.
But all of this would cost something. Is it worth the investment?
The people of Switzerland will soon be deciding on that question. Proponents of the idea were recently able to gather enough signatures to trigger a public referendum on the proposal. If passed, each Swiss citizen would be entitled to $2,800 per month ($33,600 per year), no strings attached.
Switzerland’s not alone: India, Brazil and Namibia are conducting pilot projects to test the feasibility of guaranteed income projects.
Here in Canada, there is a growing – and diverse – movement of guaranteed income supporters who say it is a big idea that’s time has come. Conservative Senator Hugh Segal is perhaps this country’s most recognizable champion for guaranteed income, and continues to take his message across the country to anyone willing to listen. Major national organizations like the Conference Board of Canada and the Canadian Medical Association have indicated that it is an idea worth pursuing. (For the record, the Green Party is the only federal party that formally endorses a guaranteed income). Canada is not without its own history of the idea: in the 1970s, the town of Dauphin, Manitoba experimented with a guaranteed income. The so-called “MINCOME” project yielded a number of positive and intriguing results, many of which are just now being brought to light thanks to the work of researcher Evelyn Forget.
Of course, all sorts of questions remain. Which of the various models of a guaranteed income would we use? At what level should benefit payments be set? How would we pay for it? Which income security programs should be rolled into a guaranteed income and which shouldn’t? What other social supports must we keep in place? Could sufficient public and political will be generated? Would it actually work? Would we be better to reform the current system instead of completely re-inventing a new one?
One powerful way to inform the discussion would be a federally-funded pilot project to evaluate and test the merits of a guaranteed income program in Canada.
CPJ believes it’s worth considering. Poverty and public policy focused solely on economic development both rob people of dignity and justice. A guaranteed income with a benefit level set above the poverty line could be part of the solution, ensuring that everyone in Canada has access to the basic necessities of life while respecting justice and encouraging participation in society.
What do you think?
Check out CPJ’s latest infographic that compares our current welfare program to the benefits of a Guaranteed Livable Income.
For more information, see our Guaranteed Livable Income resources.