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Canada stands ready for a basic income revolution

By Roderick Benns

A CBC story this week highlighted that more than three-quarters of the world’s workforce have insecure, part-time, or temporary jobs, according to the International Labour Organization. That means that only 25 percent of the world’s population is doing stable, full-time work.

For a made-in-Canada example, the Toronto Star reports on research findings this week that in the Greater Toronto Area, about 52 per cent of workers are in temporary, contract, or part-time positions.

There are all kinds of reasons for precarious employment, from automation, to a surplus of labour in developing countries, to new information technologies. This is a clock that cannot be turned back. Labour unions can fight all they want but there is simply not enough ‘work’ as it is now defined to go around.

Given the rapidly changing structures in employment around the world, it is not exaggeration to say this is a revolutionary time. Why, then, are we not calling for a revolutionary response?

It’s time for politicians to lead. It’s time to stop consulting opinion polls and start consulting top civil servants to direct them to look at the merits of a basic income guarantee policy. The best way to counter chronic, precarious employment is to ensure no one slips below the poverty line during this worldwide transition.

Canada, like most of the world, can no longer count on traditional job growth to lift people out of poverty and into the middle class. Increasingly, the middle class itself is becoming more insecure.

That’s why Canada needs a basic income guarantee as its next great social program. By ensuring the state keeps people out of poverty by providing a basic income with minimal conditions (instead of welfare), we can ensure that everyone has an income sufficient to meet their basic needs and live with dignity, regardless of their work status. (Basic income is known by many names, whether basic income, guaranteed income, livable income, or minimum income. What’s important is the concept, not the name.)

Fortunately, there are numerous examples from around the world, including Canada, where some form of basic income has been tried.

  • In part of Namibia where an unconditional basic income grant was tried, child malnutrition dropped from 42 per cent to 10 per cent, and during this time there was close to zero dropouts from school.
  • In a World Bank study, researchers gave cash transfers to families in Malawi and ended up increasing school attendance of females with the program because they could afford to go to school to better themselves and their families.
  • In eight villages in India, every man, woman, and child was given a modest amount of cash money with no strings attached. Economist Guy Standing, who was involved with the project, reports there were many benefits, including – but not limited to — improved housing, latrines, walls and roofs, better nutrition, better health outcomes, improved school attendance, and more empowerment for those with disabilities.

Some small-scale investments also happened, such as more and better seeds for farmers, sewing machines, the establishment of small shops, repairs to equipment, and more.

“Contrary to the skeptics,” writes Standing, “the grants led to more labour and work…There was a shift from casual wage labour to more…self-employed farming and business activity, with less distress…Women gained more than men.”

The important thing, Standing argues, is that families took action themselves and didn’t need to be told by the State how to spend their money to take care of themselves.

As study after study in Canada and around the world shows that labour markets are shrinking and inequality is rising, it is paramount that we act to safeguard our people from precarious work environments that are now the norm.

Prince Edward Island Premier Wade MacLauchlan agreed to begin a basic income guarantee program for residents during the recent election campaign. His recent win puts PEI in the leadership position on this issue in Canada. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi says it’s time for a guaranteed annual income, which makes him Canada’s key municipal leader on this issue. Federally, only the Green Party has taken a clear, supportive stand on this issue.

A new social order has been thrust upon us. Let’s take some initiative, seize the moment, and show the world how progressive social policy can be done.

— Roderick Benns is the publisher of Leaders and Legacies.

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