A basic income guarantee (BIG) ensures everyone an income sufficient to meet basic needs and live with dignity, regardless of work status.
Basic income supporters span the political spectrum. There are many reasons for that support and they shape the way a basic income is designed in different places. Around the world, having a basic income is recognized as a highly effective way to support important societal goals, including the reduction and elimination of poverty and insecurity; the narrowing of extreme income and wealth inequalities; shared citizenship; and improved democratic and economic functioning.
Basic income in Canada’s history
A form of BIG was established in 1967 with income guarantees for seniors. Shortly afterwards, in 1971, the idea of a wider basic or guaranteed annual income was the key recommendation in a Senate report on poverty (the “Croll report”). Also in the 1970s, both Canada and the United States ran extensive pilot programs, including a unique site in Dauphin, Manitoba. A Senate Committee in 2009, noting growing inequality and persistent poverty in Canada, said it was time to put a guaranteed income back on the public agenda.
Basic income in Canada today
Currently, the most significant income guarantees are provided for seniors and children. Old Age Security is provided as a “demogrant”, meaning that almost all adults on reaching 65 can receive it. It is an amount of money provided regularly to individual seniors, regardless of family status, past or present work status or other income. In addition, the Guaranteed Income Supplement is provided to seniors with low income using a “negative income tax model” of basic income: the lower one’s income the greater one’s benefit. Children’s benefits share similarities. Income guarantees for seniors and children work in tandem with public services to provide a better quality of life than any of us could afford on our own.
Basic income is not welfare
For working-age Canadians, overall there is little security in the event of job loss, disability, divorce, prolonged illness and treatment, maternity, economic recession and other life events. For those in this age range, Canada’s “last resort” income floor is provided by welfare (“social assistance” programs by various names) and it is very unlike a basic income concept. There is no universality, for there are different income floors for different categories of people in different parts of the country. There are many complex rules and conditions that do not apply to other people, often discouraging work effort and causing stress and poor health. In many cases welfare provides an income nowhere near to meeting basic needs. It is a throwback to an earlier time that is not suitable to life in a modern, affluent democracy.
A New Reality
Ever increasing rates of technological change are creating a new reality in which automation is replacing human labour, making life better in many ways, but also taking away livelihoods. Employment is increasingly insecure, the economy is shedding jobs, and much socially valuable work continues to go unrewarded. Some people are doing very well while many Canadians are losing ground--in income and wealth as well as in control of time, the ability to raise families and other aspects of citizenship that have been dependent on stable employment. A basic income is key to creating a future that offers security and dignity for all while ensuring a fairer distribution of work, wealth, income and participation in society.
Basic income: an idea whose time has come.
The advent of universal public health care changed Canadians’ lives profoundly: quality medical care provided on the basis of our health, not our bank accounts, makes Canada a more equal, affordable and healthy place to live. Forms of a basic income in Canada have also changed lives profoundly for the better, but only for some. Like health care, having income to meet basic needs is essential for everyone. The challenge now for Canadians is to put basic income on the public agenda, expand our vision, and create a basic income guarantee for all. It could be Canada's next great public policy legacy.