Cheaper to eliminate poverty than manage it, says Kingston woman

Roderick Benns, publisher of Leaders and Legacies, recently interviewed Tara Kainer, a long-time anti-poverty advocate, about basic income guarantee policy.

Tara Kainer grew up talking about social justice issues around the dinner table. In the 1950s, when she was a small child, her family lived in Tennessee where segregation was still in place and poverty, especially in the rural areas, was extreme.

Because her mother worked in the emergency department of a local hospital she often talked about the people who were turned away from medical services because they couldn’t pay. After leaving Tennessee they lived in Saskatchewan where the CCF government brought in Medicare before it was adopted by the federal government in 1966. Her parents were fervent supporters.

As an adult and single mother of three sons, she moved from Saskatchewan to Ontario to enrol in a PhD program but wasn’t able to finish. Because she didn’t yet have a network of contacts in Kingston, she couldn’t find decent work. Instead, she pieced together a series of part-time, freelance, and contract jobs which didn’t pay the rent and put food on the table. As a result she ended up on social assistance.

During those years she volunteered for an anti-poverty group and learned how to advocate for herself and others. While she continued to work, even a full-time job at a book store didn’t pay enough to sustain her and her family. It took eight years before she was able to find a decent job — first as a housing support worker at a local housing provider, then as support staff in the social justice office of the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul. Only then was she able to exit the welfare system.

Benns: What about basic income policy makes it a smart move for the economy?

Kainer: Of all the supports on offer to people living in poverty, a guaranteed annual income made the most sense to me. It still does. Canada currently spends more money managing poverty than it would eradicating it through a basic income guarantee. The patchwork of support systems currently in place – from tax revenue-generated programs like social assistance to charitable enterprises like food banks and meal programs – costs society billions of dollars a year.

In health care dollars alone poverty costs Canada over $7 billion dollars annually. But the overall economic and social costs of poverty to both the poor and non-poor alike, which include lost productivity, opportunity and potential; homelessness, addictions, domestic violence, policing, prisons and other social control measures, was estimated by the Ontario Association of Food Banks in 2008 to be between $72 and $86 billion a year.

In 2013 the Fraser Institute calculated the total cost of Canada’s current income support system (payout plus administrative costs) at $185-billion. A guaranteed annual income would be a bargain by comparison: the cost of providing every adult with an annual income of $20,000 and children with an income guarantee of $6,000, the Basic Income Guarantee group in Kingston gauges, would come to about $40-billion. My greatest worry and regret about having lived in poverty is the effect it had on my children. While their peers had music lessons, joined sports teams, and travelled the world, my sons missed out on one opportunity after another, ate less nutrition food than they should have, made do with second-hand clothes, lived in tiny, overcrowded apartments. Poverty is soul-destroying. It’s impossible to put a price tag on that.

Benns: What about a basic income guarantee makes it a social justice issue? 

Kainer: If we are ever to create an equitable society — meaning a healthy, inclusive, productive society –we have to address the Social Determinants of Health (SDOH).  The Canadian Medical Association says the social conditions in which we live determine our health and well-being more than any other factor, whether that is our biology, environment, or health care. Level of income is at the top of the list of the SDOH followed by early childhood development, disability, education, social inclusion, social safety net, gender, Aboriginal status, race, safe nutritious food, housing/homelessness, and community belonging.

A basic income policy would establish an income floor just above the poverty line which would ensure that all Canadians meet their basic needs. It would stabilize lives and end the chronic insecurity low-income Canadians are experiencing now. Not having to constantly worry about money and the consequences of poverty an inadequate income brings would improve health and overall quality of life, enable people to live in peace and with dignity, feel a part of society, and leave people free to follow higher educations, better jobs, and creative pursuits.

A professor and co-president of the Basic Income Earth Network, Guy Standing, says rapid technological changes are leading to huge job losses and the creation of a burgeoning social class. Standing calls them “the precariat” and this is another reason for implementing a basic income guarantee. Increasingly, in a world where there are self-driving cars and airplanes, and robots that can fill prescriptions, analyze documents, greet shoppers, operate on patients in hospitals and care for the elderly in nursing homes, it will make sense to separate income from labour. “More people, however hard they try, “ Standing says in a recent article, “will earn incomes that will not enable them to avoid poverty and insecurity.”

Benns: The most common concern 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?

Kainer: In my experience, the vast majority of people are not content to merely survive on subsistence incomes. They will do their utmost to improve the quality of their lives. When I worked 40 hours a week, all-year round, for eight years on assistance, my earnings were clawed back by the Ontario government. In exchange I was topped up with about $150 a month over and above my wages and was able to keep dental benefits for my kids and a drug card for my family. Not a lot of financial compensation for the work I was doing.

But it was the satisfaction I got from getting out into the public every day, conversing with my peers, and feeling that I was contributing to society that made working well worth it. According to the website of the Ministry of Community and Social Services, “About 11 per cent of Ontario Works recipients are working, usually part-time, while receiving benefits” (2010).  I knew others who volunteered when they couldn’t work, or spent their spare time when they weren’t hustling to merely survive acquiring knowledge and learning new skills. Very, very few fit the stereotype of welfare recipients sitting at home waiting for their next cheque to arrive.

A basic income, Standing says in the same article cited above, “would not reduce labour supply.” His basic income guarantee pilot projects in India, as well as Mincome in Canada, and others in the US and several European countries, have demonstrated that “people with basic security work harder and more productively, not less.” They move from a position of despair that chronic poverty brings to one of hope.  People who are secure in knowing they have enough income to cover their basic needs feel more in control of their lives and experience better health. Less uncertainty, chaos, and confusion frees them to think about matters other than basic survival and inspires them to more and better things. That was certainly the case for me.