Roderick Benns recently interviewed Pamela Cornell of Kingston on her involvement with the Basic Income movement.
Benns: How did you come to be involved in this issue?
Cornell: A litter of Labrador retriever pups was the catalyst that got me involved in the Kingston Action Group for a Basic Income Guarantee. When a yellow Lab, on my letter carrier walk, had seven puppies, I posted their picture on my Facebook wall. That prompted retired Queen’s professors Roberta Hamilton and Geoff Smith to adopt the pick of the litter, and name her Matilda. Some weeks later, I dropped by to see how Matilda was doing. I don’t remember what we discussed, but somehow Roberta divined that I could participate productively in the local basic income group, so she invited me to a meeting.
While my job affords me healthy exercise and pleasant encounters, it offers little for the mind. The first couple of BIG meetings I attended, featured some technical talk about implementation that I found daunting, but I was captivated by the playful exchange of ideas and perspectives. This invigorating group was just what I needed.
The concept of the basic income guarantee appeals to me, both emotionally and intellectually — emotionally, because I remember how stressful it was, being a single parent, struggling to support my daughter and me, in the early seventies. Intellectually, it appeals to me because it’s a practical approach to income distribution that will allow our citizens and our society to realize their creative potential.
Benns: What is your background? Have you ever had lived experience with poverty?
Cornell: I grew up in the village of Morrisburg, Ontario. My parents were not well-off but, looking back, I don’t remember thinking of us as poor, compared to families I knew who lived in shacks with dirt floors. Those were the days when ‘tramps’ rode the rails, and knocked on doors, offering to cut grass or rake leaves, in exchange for a cheese sandwich.
After graduating from Queen’s University, with a degree in English and Philosophy, I worked in London, England, for a year, before returning to Canada, where I thought it would be easier to pay off my student loan. Working as a reporter at The Peterborough Examiner, I was sent out to interview the man I would end up marrying. Our daughter was a little over a year old, when my husband came to the realization that he was gay. We separated amicably, but he didn’t contribute any financial support for at least four years, and I was too overwhelmed to ask.
I moved to Toronto, where my first apartment was dark, depressing, and overpriced. My daughter and I lived on orange juice, cream of wheat and apples, because that was the most nutritious food I could afford. I found a job writing advertising copy at Sears, but couldn’t find day care so had to pay the irritable woman upstairs to look after my daughter, while I was at work. I felt alone and isolated. My social life was non-existent.
At work, the woman who was training me became exasperated because, though I grasped the concepts quickly, I could barely remember anything the following day. Stress was undermining my concentration and short-term memory. I became a night grinder — rapidly wearing down my teeth. I also fell prey to infections — from colds and flu to conjunctivitis (pink eye). I remember waking up with my eyes sealed shut, and having to grope my way to the bathroom to use a warm, wet facecloth to melt that solidified discharge. Fortunately, my employer was patient and, gradually, my circumstances improved.
Benns: What about basic income policy makes it a smart move for the economy?
Cornell: For many people, economic hardship is temporary. The causes vary. Divorce or the death of a spouse can mean struggling financially to raise a family on one income. Illness can mean the loss of income, or even of employment. Young people entering the workforce often find themselves in the Catch 22 situation of not being hired, because they lack experience, but then being unable to acquire experience, without a job. A lack of affordable housing can reduce some to sofa surfing. Moreover, when there isn’t enough money to pay for necessities, debt accumulates, adding the cost of interest payments. Energy levels, and health, can be compromised by an inadequate diet. Anxiety levels rise, compromising the immune system. All these factors can serve to prolong the hardship, by undermining people’s self-confidence and their health.
The worst of these consequences and their negative effect on productivity could be avoided, or at least reduced, with the assurance a basic income guarantee would provide. It would also eliminate the need for social assistance, with its expensive and demeaning requirement for means testing and intrusive monitoring. It would give entrepreneurs and artists a basic level of security, while they develop — not just their products and creations — but also the networks and markets to sustain their enterprise.
Indications from the Mincome project in Dauphin, Manitoba, are that a basic income guarantee would reduce costly demands on hospitals, policing, and the courts, while increasing people’s opportunities to acquire further education and skills-training.
Benns: What about a basic income guarantee makes it a social justice issue?
Cornell: “That’s not fair!” children are quick to protest, often about something relatively inconsequential. But think how unfair is it to be born into poverty and deprived of secure housing and a nutritious diet. How unfair must our society seem to children whose parents are exhausted and ill-tempered from slogging away at several part-time, minimum-wage jobs, while still being unable to meet basic expenses? How fair is it when parental stress causes children to suffer psychological and physical abuse?
The economic circumstances of Canadians living in poverty violates Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A basic income guarantee is an effective way to address that unfairness.
Benns: The most common concern about implementing a basic income guarantee is that too many of us would choose not to work. Why do you believe this won’t be the case?
Cornell: The notion that giving people a basic income guarantee would turn them into indolent slackers is unfounded. Many already fill every spare moment with unpaid work — for example, looking after young, elderly, or unwell family members; studying; acquiring new skills; and volunteering in the community. People thrive on having a sense of purpose and accomplishment, along with the respect of others.
A basic income guarantee is not a radical notion. It already exists for people over 65, in the form of Old Age Security (OAS) and the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS). We simply need to extend it to working-age adults, because our economic reality is changing. The global economy has seen manufacturing jobs migrate to Asia and Central America. Robotics and artificial intelligence will further erode job opportunities.
Employers used to offer decent wages, health insurance, paid vacations and defined-benefit pensions. Now jobs like that are in decline. The Uberization of the workforce — where workers are paid by the task — is increasing the precariousness of work. Even people with PhDs face an uncertain future, cobbling together sessional lectureships or consulting contracts. A basic income guarantee would give people income security between periods of employment.
It’s time to re-think the idea of paid labour as the requirement for survival. Nobel economics laureate Paul Krugman sees a basic income guarantee as an appropriate response to the increasing share of income going to capital as opposed to labour.