The Case for Basic Income
For most people there is a very deep personal hurtful shame that accompanies government assistance. —Moira
My name is Elaine Power and I have been a
professor at Queen’s University since 2004.
My abiding passion in research is the impacts
of income, class, gender, age, and other social
factors on food practices and health. For almost
30 years, I have been doing research on food
insecurity and poverty. When someone is food
insecure, they don’t have enough money to
afford a healthy diet, they worry about having
enough money to eat, or they can only afford to
buy inexpensive, filling food to avoid going
hungry. Food insecurity is a serious public
health concern that affected over 4 million Canadians before the pandemic. It is associated with multiple physical and mental diseases, from depression to diabetes and more. Research shows that increased income fixes the problem.
For my first 15 years at Queen’s, I taught a first-year course about the social determinants of health – the systematic ways in which structural aspects of society like racism, colonialism, and patriarchy impact income—and the ability to afford food, housing, education—as well as one’s sense of belonging in our society. For many years, I taught students about the idea of basic income or a guaranteed annual income as a hypothetical way to improve the health and well-being of Canadians living on low incomes. In 2013, basic income advocate Rob Rainer came to my class to do a guest lecture. This was at the beginning of Rob’s BIG Push national campaign to promote basic income. Suddenly, basic income was less hypothetical; it became a focal point of advocacy to create a more just, more fair, healthier Canada where all can live with dignity. I became a co-founder of the Kingston Action Group for a Basic Income Guarantee and have been engaged in advocacy for an unconditional basic income ever since.
Not long after our Kingston group formed, one of our members met with then Premier Kathleen Wynne’s senior advisor to talk about basic income. Although this seemed promising, we were as shocked as everyone else when Premier Wynne announced a basic income pilot for Ontario in the 2016 provincial budget. The Ontario Basic Income Pilot (OBIP) got underway in 2017, eventually enrolling 4,000 Ontarians in Hamilton, Lindsay, Brantford and Thunder Bay to receive approximately $17,000 per year per single person (plus up to $6,000 more for those with disabilities). In 2018, I started to conduct research interviews with OBIP participants, to understand its transformative effects on the lives of those living on low incomes, when suddenly the new government of Premier Doug Ford abruptly cancelled the Pilot project. Ford’s cancellation broke a campaign promise and pulled the rug out from under those who were promised three years of steady income. My co-author, Jamie Swift, and I hope that our book, The Case for Basic Income: Freedom, Security, Justice published from that research and featuring the stories of OBIP participants will add to the political momentum for basic income.
The public health measures set up to control the COVID-19 pandemic threw millions of Canadians out of work in the spring of 2020. The federal government acted quickly to support the economy and residents, announcing the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) within a few days of the shutdown. The launch of the CERB, $2000/month for those who lost employment because of COVID, and then its revisions to include more unemployed and underemployed workers, was a recognition that existing income security measures, notably the Employment Insurance (EI) system, were inadequate for the crisis. By early May 2020, 40% of Canadians who were employed in February were receiving the CERB.
And yet an estimated 16 percent of jobless Canadians did not qualify for either the CERB or Employment Insurance (EI) because they did not meet eligibility criteria. By April 2020, one in five Canadians households were struggling to make basic payments for shelter and food. While economists praised the federal government for getting money to Canadians so quickly, there were concerns about gaps in eligibility and other design flaws. In the year since, the consequences of a hastily constructed CERB rollout continue to reverberate, with some Canadians having to repay all or some CERB benefits, others facing unexpected income tax bills, and others left behind all together, living on deeply inadequate social assistance rates.
This research was designed to capture the experiences of those left out of CERB and to help generate support for a national basic income program to replace our outdated, inadequate and ineffective income security programs. If such a program had been in place when the pandemic struck, the pitfalls of the CERB (and subsequent programs) could have been avoided. Canadians need an income security program for the challenges of the 21st century.
No One Left Behind website features short videos of some research participants, and accompanying blogs providing background information. I am deeply grateful to those who had the courage to share their stories and to
Craig Berggold for his video editing and social media expertise.