Building ‘social solidarity’ with basic income: Elaine Power


Roderick Benns recently interviewed Elaine Power, an associate professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, about the need for a Basic Income Guarantee in Canada.

Benns: What about a basic income guarantee makes it a social justice issue? 

Power: Our economic system creates poverty and creates competition for scarce resources, including paid employment. Even though there is lots of work to be done, and lots of money in our economy, there are not enough paid jobs for everyone who needs or wants one. And there is lots of work that is very worthwhile but that no private employer will pay for, such as cleaning up natural habitats or waterways. We are among the wealthiest countries in the world, but that wealth is unevenly and unfairly distributed. Since our economic system creates poverty for some people, then collectively we have a moral and ethical obligation to ensure that everyone can at least meet their basic human needs. A basic income would provide a material foundation to give people the freedom to decide how to best live their lives and how to best contribute to society. In other words, basic income helps ensure positive liberty.

Canada has signed multiple international agreement and covenants declaring that we believe everyone has a right to the basics of life. For example article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Canada is a signatory, states:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself [sic] and of his [sic] family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

On the international stage, we like to present ourselves as being on board with the idea of ensuring that everyone can meet basic human needs. Why haven’t we been able to hold our governments to account for this?

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?

Power: We work for lots of different reasons, not just money. And most of us do work that is never paid. To start, we need to change our ideas about work, not just counting the activities that get paid. For many of us, the most meaningful activities in our lives are unpaid. Maybe more of us would chose to spend our time doing those more meaningful activities when a basic income is implemented. But a basic income is never going to provide a luxurious standard of living. Most people would chose to have paid employment for all its benefits, including monetary benefits, to have a better standard of living.

Moreover, I think a basic income could help us shift the ethos of our times, which is about grabbing as much as we can for ourselves without regard for others or for the common good. I think we rise (or descend) to the expectations put upon us. If we set up expectations that everyone has something to contribute to the common good, even simple contributions like picking up garbage by the side of the road, I think ordinary people would rise to these expectations. While there has been much fear-mongering and divisiveness in recent political discourse, our new federal government seems intent to appeal to the “better angels of our nature.” I think a basic income could reinforce this and encourage us all to do the work that we are able to do to make the world a better place.

And besides, research from all over the world, including the Canadian MINCOME experiment in the 1970s, shows no work disincentive from a basic income. In recent studies in lower income countries, basic income actually gives people a springboard into paid employment.

Benns: When you imagine Canadian life with this policy in place — say 10 or 20 years of a basic income guarantee — what does the country look like? How has it changed?

Power: We have been so conditioned to think about the bottom line about every issue that we have forgotten to imagine what kind of country we want to create together.

Goodness – Canada without poverty! I think about the liberation of human potential and the end of needless suffering from deprivation. I think about all the energy and talents that will be available to tackle other issues, like climate change and social isolation. I think about people being able to attend to their own healing, such as addictions and trauma, so that they and their children can live in more inner peace, which will translate into more outer peace in our world.

In her latest book, This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein advocates a basic income to help break the stranglehold that the current political ethos has on our collective imagination — the competitive individualism that separates us from each other and tells us we are on our own to grab what we can. Basic income would help us rebuild a sense of social solidarity and enable us to collectively reimagine how to live together, more sustainably, on the planet.

I think a basic income will lessen the depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness that our insecure, unstable and competitive world induces. It will help enable us to draw out the best of ourselves and each other. I hope we will become a more compassionate, caring and just society. It will take more than 10 or 20 years but basic income is essential to creating “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.