Charity, morality, or human right: Basic Income in context

By Joe Foster  

It is estimated that about 40 percent of the North American population form the “precariat,” the term coined by Guy Standing in his 2008 paper, “How Cash Transfers Promote the Case for Basic Income.”

A key result of looming poverty is the enormous financial strain placed on families, especially those hovering near the poverty line. For example, any small mishap can mean a family not being able to pay the rent and suddenly becoming engulfed in the poverty abyss.

How are we to sell the Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) concept to the key groups which are hesitant to take action under the current economic climate? Almost every jurisdiction has some level of debt and there is no sign that this will lessen over the next few years. Why then should a government take on a new social program that entails considerable upfront costs and potential political risk?  Admittedly, the benefits will take time to have a measurable economic impact. We advocates are also the first to state that a BIG is not a panacea for fully eliminating poverty nor should it eliminate all existing social programs.

How then do we convince Canadians that now may be the ideal time to initiate a BIG? Should we sell a BIG as a responsible act of charity, a moral obligation or a rights issue?

There is no question that it is a rights issue. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, (Section 25), created after the Second World War, realizing the root causes of poverty, stated that poverty is a violation of human rights and, in effect, supported the concept of a Basic Income for all. It states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

The Declaration goes on to say much more in terms of how we should live together as a global community; this remains a dream for much of the world.

North Americans are recognized for their charitable giving. Major players such as the Bill Gates Foundation are having an impact in many parts of the world. However, charity, by nature, is patronizing and limited to the amount and direction of the giver. While admirable, it is not a recipe for solving either the world’s or community-based problems.

What then is the solution for winning the hearts and minds of Canadians to take the bold step of introducing a BIG for everyone?

 
Saskatchewan’s Example

The history of Medicare in Canada is fascinating and a good model to study. It began in Saskatchewan, one of the poorest provinces at the time. Medicare faced strong opposition from the elite, including those responsible for implementing health care. Furthermore, there was interference and furious propaganda from outside by those who saw this as a lost opportunity for making significant profits. It took a courageous leader who was in touch with the common people and understood the consequences of individuals not having access to basic health care.

This suggests that a national BIG is also possible given the right circumstances. But we need a courageous leader who understands the issues and implications of poverty and the role that a BIG can play, or a massive outcry by the public pressing for it based on their recognition of the growing precariousness of local economies and an understanding of the consequences of no action. Ideally, we would have both.

If we go ahead, there is also now much evidence that the design with clearly stated expected outputs and outcomes within a defined time frame is essential. Monitoring, evaluation and flow of information to the public is equally important to maintain the ongoing support of government and the public. The design should allow for clear benefits that are evident and measurable in a relatively short time frame. Demonstration/pilot projects should be comprehensive enough to provide statistically sound data for measuring progress and identifying any unexpected benefit or problems and the necessary data to permit taking immediate action to make adjustments where necessary.

There is no question that there is a need for leadership at the federal level if a Basic Income program is to be sustainable. At the same time, governments are hesitant to take action for new major programs without strong public support. This provides a way for politicians to effectively share the risk. Also, linkages and changes to existing programs are an integral part of implementing a BIG.

Even where there is strong support by a leader or specific jurisdiction, there is still a need for support from the vast majority of Canadians to make a BIG effective and sustainable. It’s my hope we’ll build that support steadily in the months to come.

— Joe Foster is a basic income advocate living in Ottawa.