Roderick Benns recently interviewed Debra McAuslan, who advocates for basic income through her affiliation with the Kingston Basic Income group.
Benns: How did you come to be involved with the fight for a Basic Income?
McAuslan: I had heard about basic income almost 30 years ago, but did not understand poverty. I grew up on a farm in southwestern Ontario. I have never personally known poverty. Naively, as a young adult, I believed everyone must have had the same experience I had. In nursing school during my psychiatry rotation I was totally overwhelmed by the prevalence of sexual abuse in the patient histories. During my nursing career, I have met people living in poverty, but seeing those living in poverty (when I had the privilege of visiting people’s homes during my years as a VON nurse) helped me to see the impact of poverty on health and the challenges of rural poverty.
In my 30s, within one year, my mother was diagnosed with cancer, my second child was born and my marriage fell apart. It was a dark time in my life. I was working part time and could not afford the mortgage in the city, so moved back to the rural community I grew up in with my two children. I had a good paying job, had financial security, and a loving family that helped me with child care and emotional support. I made it through those tough years, raising children on my own, the death of my mother and the struggle to get further education. I have always wondered how someone without all the supports I had makes it through life’s challenges.
In the last few years I have gotten to know several people living in poverty through my church. Their experiences of the system, the challenges obtaining food for their children, the overwhelming paperwork, the multitude of agencies that do not communicate with each other and the judgement they face has been an education for me. I knew something had to be done. I found the Kingston Basic Income Facebook site one day and called them to volunteer my help.
Benns: What about basic income policy makes it a smart move for the economy?
McAuslan: Currently one in seven or 4.9 million Canadians live below the poverty line and struggle with the insecurity of shelter, food and other basic needs. Some qualify for social assistance, a system that provides inadequate monies and is laden with disincentives to work and continual judgement. There are also the working poor struggling for enough money for the same needs as well as day care. Getting ahead seems like an impossible dream.
Our tax dollars are supporting a huge infrastructure to administer the systems related to poverty. It is estimated that the cost of homelessness in Canada is $4.9 billion per year. We know that poverty and health are linked. The tax payer cost to our healthcare system specifically due to poverty is estimated to be $7.6 billion per year. We know that there is a link between poverty and the criminal justice system. The savings in dismantling the infrastructure, in healthcare and the criminal justice systems would be substantial.
We are often overwhelmed with the multitude of requests for charitable dollars. This reflects an attempt to fill the gaps of poverty. Food Banks, United Way, the Salvation Army and other churches and charities help provide food and support both emotionally and financially…but doesn’t come close to meeting the need.
A Basic Income Guarantee would provide financial security for all people, to know there is a cheque coming that will keep them above the poverty line and that they can work and get ahead without penalty.
Benns: Why do you think a ‘living wage’ gets more press than basic income?
McAuslan: A living wage is commendable, but will only help those who are employed. The assumption that all people are able to work full time is erroneous. For many, whether it be from mental health issues, learning disabilities, and so on, obtaining and/or keeping a full time job is impossible. Sometimes this is a temporary time in their lives, where they just need some stability to get on their feet again. For others this will be a life-long struggle.
Benns: The most common concern is about implementing a basic income guarantee is that too many of us would choose not to work. Why do you believe this won’t be the case?
McAuslan: Dr Evelyn Forget’s analysis of the data from the Dauphin, Manitoba’s Mincome experiment in the 1970’s (which was a basic income experiment) showed that people did continue to work with the exception of two groups. One group was young mother’s (before the one year pregnancy leave was initiated) and the other was teenagers. Another finding was that the teenagers spent more time in school and more graduated.
A single mother I have met would like to return to work now that her children are in school. Any income she makes will be deducted from her next month’s social assistance cheque. She told me she will lose dental and drug benefits for her children if she makes more than $1,000 per month, so she chooses not to work.
When people’s lives are stable financially and they are healthy, almost all will choose to work.