Basic income risks leaving people worse off – but only if it’s badly designed

By Toni Pickard

In the media these days, conservative policy analysts are repeatedly defining basic income in its neoliberal guise, as if that's what any basic income program must be.

We've known for a long time that austerity policies don't work. Even the IMF, which has a lot to answer for in promoting/imposing them, has finally acknowledged this

Yet austerity thinking continues to influence our governments and many fellow citizens. If it comes to dominate basic income models, it will destroy all hopes for humane and effective designs, and kibosh positive outcomes for a basic income program. 

Yet the risk of this perverse vision of basic income coming to dominate public discourse is growing rapidly; designs which conform to such values and approaches will be disastrous. Now that the Ontario and Quebec governments are taking basic income up and federal officials seem open to doing the same, battle has been joined: there will be "pilots" launched over the next while, like it or not. The most immediate challenge is to create a strong and positive influence on their design. This will need to be done by focusing public awareness on and lobbying political support for a humane and effective program.

Of course, many studies have demonstrated basic income's power to rejuvenate local economies as well as to provide significant downstream savings in, health, security, education, child protection and other costly government programs. While everyone shares such cost savings objectives, people's reasons are different, and no matter the reason, no one will see the savings materialize if the upcoming trials are conceived in austerity and brought forth in stinginess.

It's important to realize that the fear that basic income will leave people worse off than they are now is not at all foolish. If the neoliberal version prevails people will surely be worse off, and decades of obeisance to neoliberal policies give that threat teeth. Now that pilots are in the works, more than ever before Canadians and our government officials need to hear our demand for a humane and effective basic income asserted again and again, loudly, clearly, powerfully, and confidently. People must be persuaded that basic income has to be both adequately funded and only one – but an absolutely necessary - component of an effective social safety net.

To that end the Kingston Action Group for a Basic Income Guarantee has circulated one possible description - their Basic Income Charter. They make this Charter available to all as does the Basic Income Canada Network with their statement. There are many ways of expressing the human centred values that should govern basic income design. The important thing is that they circulate widely so the public will come to see clearly the difference between that kind of basic income, and one responsive to austerity thinking.

Of course, there is a real need for more and better jobs and livable minimum wage legislation, for the preservation and improvement of public social services (e.g.mental health and addiction support) as well as public education, police forces, transit and the many public services that even people with comfortable incomes can't possibly afford to buy in the market. There's also a great need to develop additional social services - affordable child care, dental and vision care, affordable housing and pharmacare as examples.

All of that, yes – but for basic income advocates and supporters, the primary task is to build our picture of a sound basic income program into the basic income Canadians want to see and the ideal picture of what a well designed basic income program is meant to be. People need to understand clearly that it's a version which, in sharp distinction to the neoliberal version, does not replace or preclude any of those other programs and services, with one big exception. All provinces’ welfare programs could – and should – be dismantled. This would represent a substantial cost savings that has yet to be clearly quantified. On this point, at least, we can agree with the cost-cutters – welfare must go.

In promulgating that vision, we have a few different audiences to persuade: the general public, advocates for people living on low incomes who fear their clients will end up worse off, those clients themselves, skeptical progressive thinkers and voters who continue to believe more and better jobs and public services are all that's needed, designers of the pilots and trials that will be taking place. It's not that everyone needs to be saying exactly the same thing, but we all need to be speaking out against the neoliberal design for basic income wherever and whenever we can.

It's essential to stress not only that there are different versions of BIG, but to clarify what the major differences are. Pre-testing program designs is useful, not only to develop the most effective design for province and eventually nation wide programs, but also to help bring the impacts which have been seen elsewhere home to Canada in the 21st century. 

Following the practise in medical trials, if it's clear that the trials are working, they should be stopped and the program scaled up to include everyone, so that no one is deprived of basic income's benefits. This is the only ethical way to proceed with projects designed with human beings as the subjects.

— Toni Pickard is one of the founders of the Kingston Action Group for Basic Income Guarantee.