The existing system for Ontario Works could be, and has been described as humiliating, mired in bureaucracy, onerous to navigate, ineffective, and costly. The fact that we still have poverty today demonstrates these conditions. It fails to meet fundamental human rights. It cannot be fixed as evidenced by a small but passionate group of protestors at last Wednesday’s consultations who repeated these long standing problems.
Conversely, basic income is a non‑discriminatory, affordable way to provide an income to meet everyone’s basic needs, ensure fundamental human rights, provide a freedom to choose life course and freedom from economic coercion, and equitably redistribute social wealth, with the only means tests being citizenship and age.
Basic income has a clear definition: “A basic income (also called unconditional basic income, Citizen’s Income, basic income guarantee, universal basic income or universal demo grant) is a form of social security in which all citizens or residents of a country regularly receive an unconditional sum of money, either from a government or some other public institution, in addition to any income received from elsewhere.”
A basic income frees society and individuals to focus on what is important in life, severs economic coercion, and redefines the work‑produce‑consume relation that has severely constrained western society and innovation for the last 200 years.
Basic Income Canada Network identifies the important attributes of a basic income as:
- Enables individuals to have both (1) autonomous income to use as best meets their own needs; and (2) access to public services that benefit all of us;
- Need not replace income programs that are working fairly well, such as forms of basic income already available to children (0‑17) and seniors (65+), or programs designed for other purposes e.g., Employment Insurance, Canada and Québec pension plans;
- Replaces income provided through social assistance systems that impose paternalistic and stigmatizing conditions not applicable to other Canadians;
- Provides the security of an income floor that increases over time with the cost of living, declines gradually as other income increases, and is enhanced in particular circumstances such as disability and lone‑parenthood, consistent with the recognition such circumstances receive now in the tax system and other programs;
- Leaves no one receiving income support worse off than before a basic income program was implemented, substantially improves the wellbeing of those in deepest poverty, and to these ends changes services currently tied to social assistance receipt to ones that are geared to income;
- Works together with universal public services such as health care, education, child care and pharmacare, and over time reduces the volume of need for services that treat the consequences of poverty and exclusion;
- Does not substitute for minimum wage or pay equity laws or other measures that ensure the paid labour market operates fairly, nor for the creation of new and better jobs; nor does good basic income program design remove the need for an affordable housing strategy, and the need to combat racism, other forms of discrimination and other factors linked to inequality; and
- Is based on fair and progressive taxation.
Last Monday a report was released revealing that 2 – count them: two – individuals in Canada control the same wealth as 11 million other Canadians. Oxfam reports that globally, just eight men – yes, men – “own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity.”
A quarter century ago John Peet observed that, “In a market in which there are few rich people and a lot of poor people when trading starts, the final allocation of wealth will be very different from that in a market in which everyone had the same resources at the start.”
Understanding this is fundamental if we wish to eliminate poverty. Basic income makes tangible this inequality, and helps correct it. It is unimaginable, totally incomprehensible, how anyone, once they understand what basic income is, is intended to do, and can contribute towards, would not wholeheartedly embrace the idea. Save for the very few wealthy who wish to maintain social inequality to control and coerce millions, indeed billions of lives, the fact that a basic income would improve everyone’s life is compelling. It will shift the political axis of colonialism and neoliberalism. That basic income is only one of the myriad of tools to expand social welfare helps ensure all tools will never be eliminated. The social wealth of thousands of years of human development belongs to humanity, and must no longer remain the purview of a very few extremely wealthy individuals.
As a result of current system failures, and a better understanding of basic income from around the world, the provincial government is undertaking a basic income pilot project to begin this spring. In order to develop the best pilot possible, the province is consulting on the details to inform that pilot. As part of that consultation process, a session was recently held in Sault Ste. Marie.
There remain misunderstandings and misinformation…
While some people remain afraid of change, so too were some when Tommy Douglas worked so tirelessly to bring in medicare, when welfare, social assistance, daycare, (un)employment insurance, Old Age Security, Guaranteed Annual Income and a host of other social programs were introduced. Basic Income is only the latest…it will not be the last. Like these programs that improve the lives of people, basic income is a fair, responsible and progressive change for the better that will require cooperation and hard work to achieve the best basic income possible.
The provincial consultation drew the ire of a few protestors concerned about current levels of payment to those who qualify for Ontario Works. Their solution? Raise current rates.
Raising welfare rates is a half measure at best. It is necessary yet hopelessly insufficient. Higher rates can again be reduced at the whim of governments, or to justify austerity measures, and other benefits can be removed on the same basis, just as they have been in the past. Higher rates will not do away with the countless hoops and barriers people must confront every day as they navigate Byzantine rules, and balance just living with justifying why they should be allowed to live. Higher rates will not challenge the cruel and inhumane system of surveillance, paternalism, and mistrust recipients must endure. Higher rates will not alter the conditions recipients must meet, or end the stigma and humiliation they must tolerate. Higher rates will do nothing for precarious work, technological work displacement or contract or part time jobs. Higher rates alone do nothing for all those who do not even qualify for social assistance – the working poor – many of whom were represented at the consultation Wednesday night. The existing welfare system is dysfunctional, woefully inadequate, underfunded and stigmatizing. We need something better, more than just raised rates, something a basic income provides.
A better tool…
Basic Income offers a new system which has a real chance to transform people’s lives, especially if we all cooperate to make it the basic income we want. After listening closely to what a few protestors worried about change were actually arguing for, it has become unmistakable that what those protesting existing welfare rates really want is the basic income we all want.
These consultations are very important; they are essential. They offer an opportunity to let our government know how we think an effective and humane basic income should be designed. They allow us to tell the government what form of basic income supports human dignity as well as the income of the recipient, and leaves everyone better off than under the current system.
As with medicare, difficult challenges shouldn’t stop us from trying, for if we had with medicare, we would all be paying for private health interventions that today bankrupt and kill millions of others in countries without such a social safety net.
There are many questions of how a basic income could be implemented. This is why cooperation is so important to the basic income we want. It will be difficult to navigate the complexities of regional, cultural, programmatic and other differences. Not unlike medicare, it will take years, if not decades to understand the nuances of getting a basic income system ‘right.’ It has been many decades and we still are working on medicare. But at least the support is there when we need it, universally, for everyone, across the country. The same cannot be said for the existing dysfunctional welfare system for those who do not qualify, and for those who simply give up trying.
The gulf between protestors of the existing system and advocates for a new system is not that wide. Both want higher rates. A basic income would provide double the income to that which protestors of the existing system demand. Both want to end poverty. Raising current rates would not even do so for welfare recipients. A basic income would end poverty for everyone. Both want to ensure neoliberal austerity does not adversely affect future income levels. Both want to guarantee everyone continues to receive a fundamentally human right to an income, regardless of employment. Both wish to see the existing vastly unfair, inexcusable and shameful wealth inequities reduced. Raising the rates cannot achieve any of these. A basic income can help achieve all. The benefits of a basic income blow through the repressive system of welfare we currently endure.
In the 21st century, poverty should only be a word used in historical texts. It denotes an utter lack of community, empathy and care in the world. This is a phenomenon of western colonialism. Poverty could end tomorrow. It only takes political will. Basic income is one way to do this, and it’s on government radars everywhere. Given such a failure of the existing system, we need a basic income for all today, not just a pilot. We already have a basic income for children and the elderly in Canada and Ontario. Why should working age people be any less important? The time for studies is over. We have all called for change and the government is listening. We don’t need another pilot to study basic income. We need a basic income. Let’s just get on with it!