Who controls the basic income narrative?

It is time to stop making excuses and tackle poverty head on, writes New Democratic Party MP Leah Gazan. Basic income is a policy whose time has come. Image by Canadian Dimension.

GLBI could lift millions of Canadians out of poverty, giving workers leverage and empowering them to make their own choices

By: New Democratic Party MP Leah Gazan

I put forth Motion 46 to address the need for a guaranteed livable basic income in Canada. It is time to heed the call to justice by the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, which calls for the establishment of a guaranteed annual livable income for all Canadians, including Indigenous peoples.

This call for justice comes directly from the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and Two Spirit persons. We know there is a direct correlation between poverty and violence that has resulted in the murder and disappearance of almost 5,000 Indigenous women, girls, and Two Spirit persons in Canada.

When you leave people without choices you place people at risk. Poverty costs lives. Poverty kills.

When you provide people with an income guarantee alongside wrap-around social supports, it’s a cost-saving measure. It’s good economics to look after people. During COVID-19, with the creation of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, we have seen that a basic income is both possible and feasible in this country.

Motion 46 proposes a permanent guaranteed livable basic income available to Canadians over the age of 18, including single persons, students, families, persons with disabilities, temporary foreign workers, permanent residents, and refugee claimants.

The motion also specifically calls for an expansion of accessible affordable social housing and health services.

Motion 46 was not introduced to gut the social safety net. The motion is very specific. It does not replace our existing social safety net. Rather, it is in addition to our current, and future, public services and income supports that are meant to meet special, exceptional and other distinct needs and goals, rather than basic needs. It is designed to build on current guaranteed income programs that are no longer liveable like Old Age Security, the Child Tax Benefit, and provincial income assistance.

I do not argue that basic income is a silver bullet. A basic income alongside the strengthening of our social safety net will provide a concerted effort to eradicate poverty and ensure the respect, dignity, security and human rights of all persons living in Canada.

The privilege of controlling the narrative

Some progressive critics of basic income advance arguments rooted in privilege, with an intent to control the narrative of the oppressed, the poor, the neglected, the forgotten, and the invisible. They encourage intellectual discussions about revolutions to overthrow systems of oppression while allowing piecemeal approaches for addressing poverty to continue.

This self-righteous debate is borne on the backs of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), who have to continue to risk our bodies fighting on the frontlines for minimum human rights.

Even the criticism of neoliberalism is borne on the backs of the poor. John Clarke has referred to the neoliberal trap of basic income as an “ongoing project to create an ever more elastic and precarious workforce… basic income leads to a situation where a portion of the wage bill is now covered by general tax revenues.” But basic income is about human rights. Ample research has demonstrated the long-term benefits of a guaranteed income ensures that people have what they need to thrive, not just survive.

It is dangerous to engage in abstract discussions about which human rights should be tackled first. Individuals in power are picking and choosing what rights they wish to support: clean water, universal childcare, affordable housing, poverty reduction.

The lives of the people debating these rights do not depend on which policy agenda is the flavour of the day. They make decisions from a distance without being in the trenches of poverty, conveniently choosing to invoke the rule of law when it suits the economic narrative and pushing other rights aside when it does not. There is a lack of political will from those in power to resolve the poverty crisis.

This is apparent in government’s failure to go after offshore tax havens while having the political will to put in place laws that fine people living in poverty for loitering on the streets when their home is the streets. If someone can stay up all night figuring out how to make being unsheltered even more difficult, surely they could exercise the same intellectual imagination to figure out how to go after offshore tax havens in order to ensure affordable, accessible housing and a guaranteed livable income for all. After all, poverty is a violent human rights violation.

The source of poverty in Turtle Island

We cannot understand the poverty that we are experiencing today outside of race, gender, racism, ableism, colonization and the violent dispossession of land. To do otherwise is a futile exercise of washing over the ongoing white supremacy and racism that support inequalities and inequities in the present.

There is an erasure of Indigenous peoples, and an erasure of peoples around the world, who have been, and continue to be, disrupted by violent colonialism. It is violent colonialism that has left Indigenous peoples poor and unsheltered on their own lands, and susceptible to violence where Indigenous women, girls, and Two Spirit persons go missing with little or no action taken by authorities, and where Indigenous men and boys are murdered without justice, as in the case of Colten Boushie.

Canada was built on the violent dispossession of the lands and resources of Indigenous peoples. Prior to these violent invasions, Indigenous peoples lived a sophisticated way of life with well-established educational and spiritual practices, governance systems, legal traditions and economies, including gift economies. The benefits were not for a privileged few, but for all members of the nation. It was a way of life based on interdependence, reciprocity, and interconnectedness. Everyone had a place in the circle, with a clear understanding that whenever you take something, you must always give something back. This was a way of life grounded in equity and equality, where no one gets left behind.

During the 9th to 15th centuries, colonizers entered our territories during the feudal period. They assumed ownership over our lands, justified by the doctrines of superiority and “discovery.” Indigenous peoples were seen as less than human, a justification for the violent dispossession of land. Feudal lords began structuring society around relationships that were derived from their ownership of the land—in contrast to caretakers—and the only way one could benefit was through service and labour.

We seem to be in the same paradigm today, but now the feudal lords have been replaced by corporations supported by the government who attribute the value of a human being to work and participation in a market economy that exploits them.

The Crown, which claims ownership of the lands and resources on Turtle Island, continues to perpetrate colonial violence even today, as seen on Wet’su’weten territory, at Muskrat Falls, or on resource development sites like the Site C Dam and the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. These polluting projects disproportionately impact BIPOC communities. This is called environmental racism and this is the root of capitalism, which started with the invasion of Indigenous lands—something that continues to wreak havoc on Indigenous nations today.

This system leaves behind individuals who do not fit within the structural norms of capitalism, including many seniors, disabled persons, and people experiencing mental health issues and trauma. There are heightened levels of discrimination and racism in the labour market that make it difficult for BIPOC to gain employment that pays a living wage and upholds the rights of workers. Just consider these statistics:

  • Nearly 15 percent of older single individuals live in poverty.
  • 80 percent of Indigenous women are incarcerated for poverty-related reasons.
  • 34 percent of First Nations women and girls live in poverty.
  • Nearly 15 percent of elderly single individuals live in poverty.
  • 30 percent of Canadians with severe disabilities live on low income.
  • 45 percent of the overall homeless population lives with a disability or mental illness.
  • 1.3 million children in Canada live in poverty.
  • 40 percent of Indigenous children in Canada live in poverty, and 60 percent of Indigenous children on reserves live in poverty.
  • One in five racialized families live in poverty in Canada, as opposed to one in 20 non-racialized families.

It is abhorrent that Canada continues to break the rule of law by failing in its obligations to address poverty. Indeed, the federal government has continually failed to uphold the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in particular Article 7, which states that every Canadian has the right to life, liberty and security, and the right not to be deprived of these values.

The perversity of poor economics

Looking after people is not the burden. The burden is what I call corporate welfare, whereby governments do not tax the ultra-rich while handing out billions in fossil fuel subsidies and delivering generous corporate bailouts. Our tax revenues are wasted on corporations, like the $50 million given to MasterCard, the $12 million given to Loblaws, and the multi-billion dollar bailout to Big Oil. Why is this not the problem being identified? Instead of protecting the status quo, it is time for governments to pay their fair share in support of greater equality and equity in this country, especially when that wealth was borne out of the deliberate and ongoing oppression and dispossession of BIPOC communities.

If the main argument against basic income is about responsible spending, then let’s talk about the high costs of poverty, because poverty is one of the largest financial burdens on the economy, on the healthcare system, and on the criminal justice system in Canada.

When you don’t look after people it costs a lot of money. Consider, for example, that the annual cost of keeping a man incarcerated in a federal prison is about $121,339 per year, while the annual cost of imprisoning a woman in federal corrections is $212,005. Or think about the fact that poverty is the most significant social determinant of health. Conservative estimates place the cost of poverty on the Canadian healthcare system at $7.6 billion.

Basic income and the way forward

I’m sharing my frustrations with the theoretical analysis of poverty while people continue to die in the streets of Winnipeg and in cities all across Canada. The privileged in this country continue to indirectly benefit from the dispossession of Indigenous land and from the continued exploitation of BIPOC, people with disabilities, seniors, students, and women, while opponents of measures like basic income reach their conclusions in the absence of our voices.

Basic income is the way forward in lifting millions of Canadians out of poverty, and empowering them to make their own choices.

Basic income would give workers leverage. No one would be desperate to take any job offered at any wage, as we saw with migrant workers in meatpacking plants across Canada during the pandemic. Companies operating without adequate safeguards despite warnings from health experts created breeding grounds for disease. A basic income would mean not having to put up with degrading work, as people could be better placed to refuse a job offer. This would put the power back in the hands of workers, giving them the power to walk away.

I want to be clear: I am in full support of a living wage. I am in full support of continuing to fight for the rights of workers. But that doesn’t mean we are faced with an either-or decision. We can have both a basic income and a living wage with good working conditions for all.

For so many reasons, not everyone is able to work. Basic income would ensure the dignity and survival of people with disabilities, and for those who provide other kinds of work not valued in capitalist systems, including care work in domestic settings. Artists would finally have what they need to thrive and not just to survive. Can you imagine the pandemic without movies, books, poetry, or music? I can’t. It kept my spirit alive.

It is time to stop making excuses and tackle poverty head on. We can do this. It’s about choices, and I choose human rights, not big corporations, not banks, and not perpetuating and expanding coercive and piecemeal social policies that maintain the status quo. It’s time to put people and our Mother Earth first.

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