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A basic income guarantee should be Canada’s next great social program

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By Roderick Benns

We have built something exceptional here in Canada, despite coming of age beside the world’s most powerful country. What we have built, though, is in danger of collapse because of poverty – and that includes the well-being of our middle and upper class.

The context is that we truly are what Conrad Black has called the world’s first and only trans-continental, bicultural, parliamentary democracy. There is no doubt that John A. Macdonald’s vision, coupled with our geo-political reality, endowed us with a unique heritage. What Macdonald also did was to pave the way for others to build on the Canadian dream.

And they have.

Successive leaders after Macdonald built or expanded tremendous social programs (Richard Bennett, William Lyon Mackenzie King, Saskatchewan’s Tommy Douglas, Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau, and more) while others have demonstrated that opening our borders to vibrant free markets can co-exist alongside programs we have built for the social good (Brian Mulroney). Through the years, we have become a G-7 nation and one of the wealthiest societies in the world.

While the United States rejected the vision of a caring nation state — doing so in favour of an overall individual responsibility for personal welfare — the twisted result has been a form of social imprisonment for many of its own citizens. There is a vast gap between the rich and the poor; low minimum wages threaten even the working class; a lack of Medicare for millions has ensured American citizens are less ‘free’ than their history promised.

Canada is in no position to become complacent. The gap between the rich and the poor here is also widening, and at a startling rate. Addressing inequality is our greatest challenge, but it should not be seen as a lament of the left-wing. Societies that do not strive for equality are failed societies.

Harvard philosopher T. M. Scanlon notes there are four reasons for addressing inequality. First, there is the obvious moral reason — but there are also practical ones.

“Income inequality means that some children will…find it harder to access the first small steps to larger opportunities, such as a loan to start a business or pay for an advanced degree,” Scanlon writes.

He also notes that workers, as part of a cooperative effort to create a national income, have an honest claim to “a fair share of what they have helped to produce.”

(By virtue of good national policy, Canada has avoided Scanlon’s fourth reason for addressing inequality – namely, that politicians who depend on large contributions for their campaigns will be more responsive to the interests of the rich. In Canada, a person can only give up to $1,200 each year, in total, to each registered political party. Corporations and trade unions may not make contributions at all.)

The $20,000 Solution

There is a movement that has been gaining steam in Canada to create a basic income guarantee as Canada’s next key social program. In some ways, it’s incredibly simple. No man or woman in Canada would ever fall below a $20,000 annual income threshold.

In other words, if you worked part time while putting yourself through school and earned $12,000 a year, then the basic income guarantee program would kick in with $8,000 at tax time.

The biggest elephant in the room is the fear that a large cross-section of people will simply stop working. But there is ample evidence to suggest this simply won’t happen. In Dauphin, Manitoba, from 1974 to 1979, the federal and provincial governments of Canada provided money to every person and family in Dauphin who were living below the poverty line. The program was called Mincome (minimum income) and it affected the lives of about 1,000 families who received monthly cheques as part of the experiment. For a family of five, payments equalled about $18,000 a year in today’s dollars.

Finding Meaning in Our Lives

Many years later, Evelyn Forget, a professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba, took a second look at the results. She found there was only a slight decline in work – and that was mostly among mothers, who made the choice to stay home with their children longer. She also found that teenagers decided to stay in school longer, that hospital visits declined, and that mental health visits were also reduced.

The Mincome project was quietly pre-empted by a change in government at the provincial level, and a nervous economic situation at the federal level, as a world oil crisis played out. But what it showed us is what many social scientists have long believed – that people are hardwired to find meaning in their lives. When one is overly preoccupied with the next meal or paying the rent on time, it leaves little room for daring to dream about other opportunities. It’s difficult to go back to school to better oneself, to innovate new ideas, or simply to do a good, attentive job of raising a family. Mincome showed that 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. Kelly Ernst, of the Basic Income Canada Network, estimates the cost to be $11-14 billion dollars. In either case, it’s undoubtedly a lot of money, and yet not prohibitive for one of the world’s wealthiest nations. Contrast this with a 2008 study, estimating that $72 billion to $86 billion as the cost of health care, criminal justice and lost productivity, all associated with the crippling effects of poverty. In other words, we would actually be saving money to implement a basic income guarantee.

As for paying for such a program, it’s quite possible the following massive programs could eventually be dismantled:

  • the entire welfare system
  • disability support
  • employment insurance

These three enormous programs could be made obsolete by a basic income guarantee. Such a new approach would be simpler, it would save money, it would make us healthier, safer, and save lives.

A Program for the Left and Right

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 our economy.

A recent poll conducted by the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation indicates slight majority support for a basic income plan for Canadians. Let us build on this support with a sense of urgency. Leaders and Legacies calls for the federal government, in cooperation with he provinces and municipalities, to coordinate a handful of pilot projects across Canada that properly mirrors the complexity of Canadian society. A long-term study will yield new data on this important issue.

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. Today, nearly 150 years later, we can ensure that we continue to nation build and be more egalitarian again. This time, though, we can do so from a position of collective strength, not collective struggle, given the wealth and opportunity we have built together.

The toleration of poverty 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 Canadian society of opportunity for all.

– Roderick Benns is the publisher of Leaders and Legacies.

Leaders and Legacies will conduct an ongoing campaign for the elimination of poverty in Canada, through this news program. From interviewing well-known Canadians, to researchers, to community support workers, to average people across the country, we will work tirelessly for a more equitable Canada through advocacy, policy change, and the power of stories. 

If you are an organization and would like to speak to us about funding or participating in this campaign, contact us here. If you are an individual and can support our campaign, please use the PayPal button on the front page of this news site. 

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