Tough times lay the groundwork for citizen support of basic income

By Victor Lau

Saskatchewan is a province in transition. Traditionally alternating between two major political parties; the Sask NDP and a ‘conservative’ type party currently incarnated as the SaskParty.

Today, the Saskatchewan Green Party is challenging that status quo in the upcoming April 4, 2016 provincial election. A key policy in the Green Party ‘Real Change’ platform is the implementation of a Guaranteed Livable Income (GLI).

A recent Report on Poverty delivered to the current provincial government last year focused on the need for a test pilot on GLI to measure its potential in eliminating poverty. In that report, it was also stated that Saskatchewan citizens were doing fairly well except for 10 percent that lived in constant poverty (below the low income cut-off). For this 10 percent, it was a daily struggle to find enough food to eat, a safe place to sleep and the search for livable employment was endless. Without the higher skills or finished education, employers would constantly hire and fire these desperate people, keeping them in a state of constant bare existence, never getting ahead. They always awoke to a bleak future for themselves, let alone any children they may be raising.

The mere mention of a solution to this poverty trap, let alone a potential perfect solution, has many citizens chattering about the GLI. Saskatchewan may well be catching up to the rest of Canada. Alberta not only has the Minister of Finance, Joe Ceci, but also two big city mayors – Naheed Nenshi and Don Iveson — onside. The province of PEI has Premier MacLauchlin promising some form of basic income and PEI Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker pushing him along. Most recently the federal Liberals and Quebec Premier Phillipe Couillard talked openly about moving forward toward restructuring and implementation of a GLI.

Here in Saskatchewan, the birthplace of one of Canada’s most cherished social programs – Medicare — the debate on how best to eliminate poverty has truly begun. The SaskParty ruling government clings to the hope of an economic recovery with oil prices surging higher bringing much needed jobs in the oil patch again. The Sask NDP talk only about spending more to better Healthcare and Education but only mention a Basic Income test pilot project. The Sask Green Party has costed out the GLI and intends immediate implementation upon forming government after the April 4 election. By putting in a minimum income floor which no Saskatchewan citizen would fall below, the Greens would effectively help over 113,000 citizens and end poverty.

Like Medicare, the GLI faces many of the same hurdles before any government could hope to get to the stage of implementation. Firstly, citizens need to have a desire for the GLI. Due to the oil downturn, over 26,000 oil workers became unemployed and indirectly affected other businesses due to lower discretionary spending. In addition, the higher cost of living has stayed high, even though the economic boom is well over. These tough times have laid the groundwork for citizen support of the GLI.

Another two hurdles include both the cost and outcome(s) of implementing the GLI. Many citizens question whether a GLI is affordable especially in our economic downturn. Plus, what about all the laziness that will occur? I would say this is the perfect time to test out the macro effects of a GLI and take note of any issues or problems that occur. As for the laziness question, all studies across the globe show the exact opposite. People work more with a GLI, not less.

Medicare has proven its worth to millions of Canadians whose health outcomes would have been much worse in a private system. The perfect storm of income insecurity and higher cost of living in Saskatchewan may well bring the election of a government promising the implementation of the Guaranteed Income. We will soon find out after April 4, 2016.

— Victor Lau is the leader of the Green Party of Saskatchewan. This column originally ran in Leaders and Legacies here.