The Challenge and Hope of a Basic Income
Income assistance exists in a variety of forms, from the national child benefit to complex social programs. But is there a better way? The basic income is not a new idea, but new strategies could help solve issues brought about through low union rates and precarity of work. Is it time for a basic income?
The basic income challenge
In the 1970s, basic income inspired field experiments across North America in reaction to flawed income assistance schemes. Notwithstanding the high costs of welfare, deep pockets of poverty persisted while welfare itself created work disincentives. A universal basic income was not implemented as a result of the experiments, but they did have an impact. In Canada, a basic income for seniors was created in the form of OAS/GIS. For children, we now have the national child benefit, which is a basic income for families with dependent children. Adults without dependent children, however, still make do with complex, expensive, poorly articulated, and inadequate social programs that keep them mired in poverty. Since the 1970s, private sector unionization rates have plummeted, labour force participation rates for men have declined, real wage rates have stagnated, and full-time jobs with benefits have been increasingly replaced by precarious jobs and self-employment. These changes are not reversible and a basic income is one way to ensure that families have the resources they need to live reasonable lives.
Evelyn Forget is an economist, professor in the Rady College of Medicine at the University of Manitoba, academic director of the Manitoba Research Data Centre and adjunct scientist at the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy. She is an adjunct scientist with the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy, and was responsible for recovering the Mincome basic income results.
The reality of a basic income
The concept of a basic income isn’t new. Visionary thinkers have advocated for different forms of basic income guarantees for many centuries and different experiments have been conducted.
With inadequate social assistance, growing precarity of employment, inequality, and the prospect of robots taking away jobs, it has attracted an enormous amount of interest over the past year. Some see it as a cure-all for many of our social problems. Has its time finally come?
The debate continues with proponents and opponents spanning the political spectrum, reflecting different visions of society but also because each sees what they want to in the general concept. It’s time to get real with specific proposals — and to consider a basic income in relation to what public services and collective goods should provide, the role of work, and power relationships.
Toby Sanger is the economist for the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and previously worked as the chief economist for the Yukon government and as principal economic policy advisor to the Ontario Minister of Finance. He’s written about basic income from a left/labour perspective and has also spent time in Dauphin, Manitoba!