Basic income doesn't emphasize divisions between poor and working people: PhD candidate

Roderick Benns recently interviewed David Calnitsky, who is a Canadian PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, completing his thesis on the Mincome experiment with basic income. The experiment took place in the 1970s in Dauphin, Manitoba. He has recently published part of it as an article: “More Normal than Welfare”: The Mincome Experiment, Stigma, and Community Experience.”

Benns: What were two or three of the most revealing aspects of the Dauphin, MB experiment with basic income, in terms of how it changed people’s lives?

Calnitsky: My recent paper is on social stigma, and broadly, the “dignity problem,” which I think gets insufficient attention in these debates. Participants with experience in the welfare system wrote about the pervasive indignities inflicted on them. Meanwhile, when asked about Mincome, people viewed the program as a pragmatic source of assistance. According to people’s accounts, participating in Mincome didn’t damage your standing in the community.

And there’s a couple reasons for that. First, instead of degrading and invasive case-worker discretion, Mincome was not unlike the un-stigmatizing benefits that can come at tax time. It didn’t have the same case-by-case treatment, the searching investigation of recipients’ lives. The whole thing could be done by mail. And second, perhaps more importantly, it was a broadly available, universalistic program. It treated lots of different people in a similar manner. It blurred the lines of demarcation between low-wage workers, the disabled, unemployed workers, and former social assistance recipients. The more universalistic a program, the more people it reaches, the more normal it starts to feel.

So, for example, one person wrote, “I feel that [welfare] is more for disabled or people which are too lazy to work. It doesn’t include us, we’re both able and willing to work but can’t get a job due to the low employment rate.” They joined Mincome simply because they were “short of money.” Mincome was less likely to signal your moral worth, instead it was just a practical problem solver.

If we’re interested in social policies that are resilient I think the dignity problem, or the moral aspects of these policies are worth considering more closely. Universalistic income maintenance programs will be popular, and that popularity is a key source of their sustainability. What’s more, unlike targeted welfare programs, they don’t exacerbate divisions among poor and working people.

Benns: We seem to be on the path to more pilot projects in Canada, with updated data. Broadly, do you have a prediction about the results that we will see? Will the changes in society since the 1970s inevitably affect the data?

Calnitsky: I think pilot projects are extremely exciting. There are, however, some pitfalls to watch out for. From my perspective, looking at the Mincome experiment, one of the problems with the experimental approach is that you get a lot of empirical scrutiny, but you miss the important “popularity” effect. That is, for a basic income advocate, the difference between running an experiment and actually implementing the thing, is that only in the latter do you have the popularity of the policy working on your side, making it difficult for politicians to put the kibosh on things, or politely ignore it in the face of inevitably ambiguous evidence. Mincome was popular; but popularity can translate into robust social policy only once it’s implemented widely.

Universal healthcare in Canada was simply implemented. Once in place its popularity made it hard to roll back. If we had experimented with it first, it would be easy to imagine some negative findings coming out here and there, harming its chances of being realized.

This issue is compounded by the fact that it’s often not clear what results are acceptable. The debates around US and Canadian experiments from the 1970s were muddled from the outset because there was no prior agreement on what amount of work reduction was acceptable. So, proponents and opponents alike had ammunition: proponents observed the small reductions in work as vindications of the program’s feasibility, while opponents interpreted the same data as a sign of the program’s failure.

In terms of changes since the 1970s I’d make two points. First, there’s no question that there is a gap between a small rural town and contemporary labour markets. In spite of that, the precarity of Dauphin’s seasonal labour market bears a certain resemblance to the contemporary world of work. On this score a number of participants said they joined Mincome for security-related reasons. One woman said this: “Uncertain of husband’s earning abilities for [the] winter months as seasons sometimes affects his earnings. . . . If one loses a job (or illness) I feel Mincome gives families a little more security and helps remove some extra fears.” Her family faced a different set of circumstances, but insecurity is a common thread. And there is little doubt that labour markets are even less secure than they were in the 1970s.

Second, regarding the contemporary welfare system, there have been important changes, but in many ways we see the same regulation of the lives of the poor, the same distinctions between the “deserving” and “undeserving.” Recent studies show that the social assistance system continues to be marked by deep social stigmatization, and I think we have every reason to expect that a more universalistic and unconditional system would improve people’s lives in much the same way it did in the 1970s.

Benns: You did qualitative research of the Dauphin years with basic income. Is there a particular story/anecdote that stands out for you for its power?

Calnitsky: Perhaps what’s most interesting is that I found that Mincome’s social meaning was powerful enough that even participants who themselves had particularly negative attitudes toward social assistance—people who opposed welfare on moral grounds, who saw welfare recipients in a negative light, and who believed strongly in the principle of earning one’s own living—felt able to collect Mincome payments without a sense of contradiction.

A man who wrote, “Welfare to me was accepting something for nothing,” joined Mincome because it “would be a benefit to me at some time.”

Another person refused welfare, saying “welfare is for (the) needy or bums”; he joined Mincome for pragmatic reasons: “For the extra income.”

A third refused welfare saying, “I’m able to support myself.” He joined Mincome saying “I might get assistance.”

This kind of positive reception really bears on the program sustainability issue. If we want robust social policies we should look toward universalistic programs that take the question of the moral quality of the poor off the table.