John Green had careers in both information technology and publishing before health reasons forced him to quit his work. In a G7 nation of spectacular wealth, the Waterloo resident suddenly found himself on disability benefits and living well below the poverty line.
While Canada has regularly been ranked one of the top 10 places to lives in the world for 21 consecutive years by both the United Nations and the Economist Intelligence Unit, there is another, more troubling story that continues to unfold – the creeping distance between those who have and those who have not.
For people like Green, who always had an interest in inequality as a policy issue, it was now an issue that suddenly hit home. A year ago, Green mobilized an advocacy group called Basic Income Waterloo Region. Serving as coordinator of the organization, Green points out that it’s modelled after the Basic Income Canada Network, for which he also volunteers in a communications capacity.
In general, a basic income guarantee would ensure that no one in Canada would ever fall below the poverty line. The government would ‘top up’ anyone who didn’t meet this threshold, which is often pegged at $20,000 per year.
Green’s group works to build public support in Waterloo Region for a basic income guarantee policy (also called guaranteed annual income) at a grassroots level. His group works to engage with politicians in as many electoral districts as possible. He notes the regional groups, like Waterloo’s, are all generally sympathetic to BICN’s goals and messaging but are not controlled by the national group in any way, and nor do they speak for the national group.
Green says there is “general dissatisfaction with current government income-support programs and approaches to addressing poverty.”
“In the past year or so, I have met with people from many agencies and groups who work with people living in poverty, and I have been heartened by their generally positive responses to the idea of a basic income guarantee,” says Green.
When asked if a basic income guarantee would be likely to replace existing social programs, Green acknowledges some people get nervous about this idea.
He knows that some people would worry they might be worse off than before, if a basic income guarantee were to replace other forms of social benefits.
“My opinion is that many existing income-support programs — including welfare, Old Age Security, the GST rebate, the Canada Child Tax Benefit and many other tax credits — could safely be replaced with a well-designed basic income guarantee.”
Green says that the livable benefit level his group advocates for is roughly $20,000 per adult and $6000 per child. This “is higher than any existing income support program in Canada” that is currently paid.
“So recipients of existing programs would be better off under this kind of basic income guarantee.”
Green says they would be better off in two ways. First, the amount of income received would be greater than what they currently receive, and secondly “there would be far fewer, if any, rules or conditions to meet in order to qualify.” This would also reduce bureaucracy considerably.
One possible exception, he notes, is Employment Insurance, where the maximum benefit is slightly higher, but yet not everyone receives the maximum.
“And many unemployed people don’t qualify for EI benefits at all.”
Green says it would be good to see some statistics on typical EI benefits received before forming any strong opinions about replacing EI.
Other existing programs could have their income-support component replaced with the basic income guarantee, he says, but yet continue to provide specialized supports unique to each person’s needs.
“For example, disability programs could continue to provide the extra supports needed by people with disabilities, including extra financial support to cover expensive medications or assistive devices, while the basic income guarantee would provide income for regular living expenses.”
Green says the system would still need to be in place to help out with non-financial supports, such as affordable housing, employment supports, assistance in filing income tax returns, and drug, dental and vision coverage.
For Basic Income Waterloo Region, Green says they will continue to focus on networking and building alliances with anti-poverty groups and agencies in the region, “hoping that they will include basic income in the conversation when they engage with local politicians.”
Leaders and Legacies is conducting 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 are working for a more equitable Canada through advocacy, policy change, and the power of stories.
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