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Goodbye welfare, hello basic income

By Roderick Benns

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.

– 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. 



  1. I believe this is a minimum income you’re describing, not a basic income. A basic income would not be adjusted by how much money you make, it would be unconditional.

    They have drastically different outcomes, where working in a minimum income doesn’t help you at all if you’re under the limit.

    In a basic income, working a part time job leaves you with more money than no job.

  2. Simply giving everyone in Canada (35 million) a guaranteed income of $20,000 would cost $700 billion dollars. If you restricted it to the ages of between 21 and 65, it would still cost ~$400 billion dollars.

    I want to see more funding and implementation information.

  3. Roderick Benns

    We do not advocate giving everyone in Canada $20,000. The vast majority of Canadians work — they WANT to earn more than just barely keeping above the poverty line. The program would simply serve to save those people who lose their job, or who are working part time and need some assistance to be ‘topped up’ to $20,000. Also, the figure of $20,000 is an estimate. Studies need to be done on this and pilot projects need to be created.

  4. I believe this can be accomplished in a simpler way by adjusting social assistance rates within the existing framework for each Province :
    1) the amount of money it would take to set up whole new programs could be put into existing systems – it would be millions of dollars to set up new systems, pay out large severance packages to Provincial employees, re-create existing websites and written documents
    2) social service offices help their clients with WAY more than just sending out cheques – who would help people with the many other needs they have?
    3) in my previous experience working in social services we processed numerous amounts of “during the year” changes – changes of address, family composition ie children coming into or leaving a home – Federal systems are not set up to handle “on the spot” changes like this – families already suffer due to wait times with Federal benefits such as child tax credits – this would be unacceptable for “basic” income support
    4) using existing systems can work – save millions of dollars that can be re routed into low income families pockets

  5. Why not start with the Seniors? They are the ones who have put into the system for years and get relatively nothing back…I know because I am a senior and I get $12,360.00/yr (OAS and CPP) after 43 years of working hard and paying into the system. And I am expected to survive on that income. Can I get a job at 65-70 yrs of age? With over 40yrs of experience?… No chance…

    • Not all seniors get even that much. For example I am a New Brunswick senior who receives under $10,000 a year, my partner a bit more. A lack of livable wage would not be quite so bad if I lived within an urban area or could easily walk to my closest urban area with libraries and museums and coffee shops and such.

      Because a house in a rural area was the only affordable home my family could afford many years ago, now I am stuck here in a housing development surrounded by woods, ideal for hermits but culturally alien to someone like myself who was born and raised in towns and cities with people-friendly shops. If it were even a farming community where neighbours are friendly and helpful but it is not. Also, we pay high taxes and I’m not really sure what we receive in return. We must pay maintain our own well and sewage system which we also paid to install and replace some years later when municipal regulations changed. Street signs have disappeared, roads are in bad shape and we only receive garbage pickup every second week. During winter there is no such thing as snow removal. Snow from the road is plowed into our driveways, often in the form of large ice boulders after we have cleaned our driveway.

      The rising gas prices certainly do not make life easier but a vehicle is a definite necessity. My home is too far from downtown to walk, there are no busses and a taxi would cost at least $40.00 for each trip into town.

      My partner and I share the house and one car. I restrict myself to going into town only three days a week to work in my art studio which is downtown and open to the public. It is an old building in need of repair and much too costly to heat in winter otherwise I might move there.

      My studio is pretty well the extent of my social life. I rarely go anywhere in the evening, especially during winter. If I could afford taxis I would participate in community cultural events. I try not to complain too much about this because I know I’m not the only senior who lives such an existence. Many others have tried to convince themselves that FB is a substitute for real human contact but I don’t think so.

      I have never known a life of equality with my peers. I’ve never been in a situation where I felt financially secure and independent my throughout my years of child-rearing followed by years of chronic unemployment.
      I believe I would have fared much better both then and now if I had received some sort of basic Income that I could call my own. I speak from long experience when I say that a basic income for every citizen should be a basic human right.

  6. Roderick Benns

    Well, seniors (at least in Ontario) have already experienced the automatic top-ups that people like Hugh Segal have been advocating for. As he writes in the Huffington Post: “The answer, in terms of poverty reduction for working age people, is the same as it has been over decades for seniors — automatic top-ups for those who fall beneath the poverty line. When that happened for seniors in Ontario in the mid-1970s, their poverty rate fell from over thirty percent to under five percent — without the hiring of additional civil servants — largely because the tax system was the chosen delivery instrument. This Ontario plan migrated to all provinces and the federal government. It brought seniors back into the economic mainstream.”

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