Opinion: Basic income would be an affordable and compassionate response to poverty

Letter to the Editor from Evelyn L. Forget.

An act to develop a national framework for a guaranteed livable basic income has been introduced to the House of Commons (C-223) by MP Leah Gazan and in the Senate (S-233) by Senator Kim Pate.

The bill is a response to the years of neglect that have undermined our social safety net to the point where medically assisted death seems preferable to legislated poverty among people with disabilities, where people are without housing shelter in city parks or bus shacks and food banks are over-run.

Despite years of evidence demonstrating the health and social benefits of basic income, there are critics.

Some claim basic income is a plot by a shadowy global elite intent on transhumanism. Others trot out the more usual criticisms based on deeply held suspicions rather than evidence.

Some, such as Senator Diane Bellemare, have argued basic income would only be feasible at an astronomic cost. They also imagine the same amount would be paid to all Canadians, rich or poor, when the entire conversation around basic income in Canada has focused on a modest basic income targeted to those with low incomes.

Some claim a basic income would require a complete transformation of our income tax system at the federal and provincial levels. Hardly.

A basic income would require negotiated contributions from the federal government and each province, all of which could reconsider the dozens of inconsistent ways they now attempt to address poverty by delivering cash to individuals.

Replacing the GST credit, reimagining the Canada Workers Benefit and harmonizing benefits is challenging, but not inconceivable and long overdue. Some provinces have already begun that work.

Would a basic income mean paying everyone the same amount making it impossible to respond to differential needs? The bill explicitly says otherwise.

People with disabilities are hard at work designing a basic income that meets their needs.

Many critics forget current programs (such as provincial social assistance) also have a hefty price-tag attached to them. Some claim massive labour market disincentives, even though the Parliamentary Budget Office estimated a basic income might lead to a reduction in hours worked of 1.3 per cent — hardly an immense effect.

Would a basic income impose intractable constitutional difficulties?

Provinces in this country have authority to deliver social assistance. Yet, they also have the authority to deliver childcare. We just saw provinces and territories sign on to a federal childcare initiative that respected the different goals and capacities of each province.

Healthcare is a provincial responsibility delivered in the context of national standards and shared funding. Why would basic income be less feasible?

Canadians need to have a real conversation about poverty – without fearmongering or invented data. We need to know how different levels of government can cooperate to best respond to real social needs. The bill is an invitation to that conversation.

If I had drafted the bill, I might have made some changes.

I personally would not extend a basic income to Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW) — not because I don’t recognize the deplorable conditions in which many live and work, but because I think the TFW program needs to be completely rethought so it doesn’t keep Canadian wages artificially low.

Nor would I extend a basic income to everyone over 17 on the same terms.

I recognize the toll poverty takes among young people; young parents are almost uniformly living on less than the poverty line. Meanwhile, the struggle of young people forced to live without parental support has encouraged many provinces to extend support to youth aging out of foster care.

However, others under 25 earn little on their own account, yet live comfortably with their parents’ help.

These are surmountable challenges policymakers should turn to rather than debating the already established merits of a basic income.

It makes little sense to report strong public belief all working-age adults in Canada should work to earn a living when 70 per cent of social assistance rolls are comprised of people with disabilities — some of whom can’t work at all and others who need supports to make work possible.

Let’s get past the ideology and think about how we can make life better for all Canadians.


Evelyn L. Forget is an Officer of the Order of Canada, an economist and professor at the University of Manitoba. She is author of Basic Income for Canadians: From the Covid-19 emergency to financial security for all.

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