A Saskatoon-based physician, author, and advocate says a basic income guarantee is both “the smart thing and the right thing” to do for society.
Dr. Ryan Meili was in Kingston, Ontario, recently to talk to more than 100 people about the importance of the social determinants of health in an event that was hosted by Basic Income Kingston. The social determinants of health influence health outcomes for people and include many components that work together, including income and income distribution, education, unemployment and job security, among others.
Meili described a basic income guarantee as “an exciting opportunity” and a kind of “social investment to counter inequality,” pointing out that getting people out of poverty is the first social determinant of health on the list for good reason. While there are many models for implementing a basic income guarantee, he says the most important thing is to begin the process and invest in society.
“The evidence is on the side of making social investments,” he says, pointing out that Canada is in dire need of a national housing strategy as one example.
Meili is the founder of Upstream, a national, non-partisan group billed as a “movement to create a healthy society through evidence-based, people-centred ideas.” Upstream is attempting to reframe public discourse around tackling the social determinants of health to improve society.
The evening was billed as a conversation between Meili and Kingston author Lawrence Scanlan, who wrote A Year of Living Generously, a book that chronicles Scanlan’s 12 months of volunteering with twelve different charities. Meili is the author of A Healthy Society: How a Focus on Health can Revive Canadian Democracy and one of the leading Canadian advocates for more attention to be paid to the social determinants of health.
Tackling the common question of whether or not a basic income would create a work disincentive, Meili says most people want to be productive members of society.
“But when we give people just barely enough to get by,” he says, citing social assistance models, it doesn’t have the same kind of positive impact, either for that person or for society. He points out that in a bare bones welfare model, someone might not have enough money left over each month to be able to take a train ride to explore new employment opportunities, as an example.
One audience member pointed out that a parent may need to quit their job to obtain the social assistance benefit of getting their child reading glasses, calling the choices that need to be made “dehumanizing.”
“In Saskatchewan, 70 percent of what a person gets (on social assistance) goes to rent alone, on average…then there’s only a couple of hundred bucks left over and people are really scrambling,” he says.
The physician and advocate urged the crowd to consider that health and wellbeing is “the best measure of how we’re doing as a society.” If we don’t spend money on prevention and maintenance, he points out, then society as a whole suffers.
Meili, who was named Saskatoon’s Global Citizen of the Year by the Saskatchewan Council for International Cooperation, nearly won the leadership of the Saskatchewan NDP in 2013, losing by only 44 votes.