We have built something exceptional here in Canada, despite coming of age besides the world’s most powerful nation. Yet as similar as we are to the U.S., we take great pride in our differences. We differentiate ourselves in many ways, from our parliamentary system of government, to our more egalitarian point of view, and through our emphasis on social programs for the common good — especially health care.
Inequality is having a catastrophic effect on the U.S. economy, on the American social fabric, and in the health of its people. We are not immune. We are merely in a slower freefall. Inequality is not an issue for poor people – it is an issue for all of us.
The Basic Income solution
There is a movement that has been gaining steam in Canada to help halt this slide toward a more unequal and less healthy society. What Canada needs is a basic income guarantee as its next great social program. In some ways, it’s incredibly simple. No person in Canada would ever fall below a set, annual income threshold.
For our purposes here, let’s say that cut-off is $20,000 a year. In one example, a man may be employed part time while also attending college for some re-training and he earns $12,000 a year. The basic income guarantee would kick in with $8,000 at tax time, spread out monthly using our existing and effective tax delivery system. In another example, a single mom stays home to care for her children and volunteers part-time in her community. She would be entitled to $20,000 so she doesn’t slip below the poverty line. This is not living the good life. This is ‘basic income’ to meet her needs. This is far better than punitive welfare, where she must purge herself of every asset that she has. In the welfare model, she must also never earn more at a job than $200 a month (in Ontario) or she will see money clawed back.
In other words, she must be completely impoverished, and then be expected to somehow start again. This is not a social program; it is a hideous, finger-pointing, neo-liberal monstrosity. And it is ineffective in the extreme.
PEI to lead the way
After all party leaders in Prince Edward Island endorsed a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) program recently as a poverty reduction strategy, there is optimism that the long-sought-after program might just become a reality in Canada’s smallest province. That’s a great start.
The biggest elephant in the room is a fear that a large cross-section of people will simply stop being productive if they have a basic income guarantee. But there is ample evidence to suggest this simply won’t happen, from experiments done in Dauphin, Manitoba in the 1970s, Brazil in 2004 (and ongoing), a two-year pilot in Namibia from 2008-2010, and India in 2011, among other examples. Speaking about the most recent India experiment, renowned economist Guy Standing said that people worked more, not less.
A better life
When one is overly preoccupied with paying the rent on time, it leaves little room for daring to dream about other opportunities, to innovate and better oneself, or to even simply do an attentive job of raising a family. If we take the worry of poverty off people’s shoulders, there’s a much better chance to create a richer, more meaningful society for everyone.
When a Senate committee made rough calculations six years ago, they found it would cost about $20 billion to implement such a program. A 2008 study, estimated that $72 billion to $86 billion was the cost of health care, criminal justice and lost productivity, all associated with the crippling effects of inequality. In other words, we would actually be saving money to implement a basic income guarantee.
As for paying for such a program, it’s obvious that the entire welfare system could eventually be scrapped to save money. Other big-ticket and costly programs could be analyzed for their effectiveness or need once a basic income was part of Canadian life.
Those who lean left on the political spectrum can appreciate the obvious goal of ending poverty for all. Even those on the far right hand side of political opinion, who may only wish to talk about economic models, should appreciate a more simplified tax code, far less bureaucracy, and a chance for all Canadians to have more money to spend in within the economy.
Unlike our southern neighbour, Canada began as an egalitarian nation of modest means. We didn’t have a dominant upper class – we just had people working together in common cause.
Let’s choose a common cause again.
The toleration of inequality is a continuing blight on our national legacy, in a country where we should have a democratic right to equity. Canada has been blessed with a legacy of great leaders. It will be great leadership again – at national, provincial, and community levels – that creates an equitable society of opportunity for all.