Recently a group of anti-poverty activists in Ontario published an article in the Toronto Star lamenting the ongoing studies and consultations respecting poverty reduction plans followed by no action. They call instead for an immediate increase in the lamentably low benefit rates. We’re entirely sympathetic to that demand, but have written a sympathetic ‘response’ rather than endorsing the piece.
Last month an energetic Ontario anti-poverty coalition issued a sharp critique of Ontario’s social assistance policy. The Put Food in the Budget coalition condemned government consultations and studies as “diversionary tactics” and “empty promises.”
The activists want welfare rates raised. While certainly necessary, tinkering with a wholly dysfunctional system is far from sufficient.
In his new book, Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders and a 15-hour Workweek, Dutch writer Rutger Bregman argues that social justice advocates need to turn away from gloom-and-doom and what he describes as “underdog” activism.
Underdogs have been reduced to naysayers. Against austerity. Against privatization. Against the one per cent. While sharing such positions, Bregman asks a fundamental question: What are the underdogs actually for?
He urges social justice advocates to embrace more imaginative ideas. Increasing welfare rates (or similar small asks) won’t galvanize widespread political support or offer that optimistic vision of the future.
A basic, livable income (BIG, or Basic Income Guarantee) offers just such a vision. Yet some social justice advocates are suspicious, fearing BIG is simply a stalling tactic; if implemented the income would be set too low, serving as an excuse for eliminating stingy social programs already eroded by apostles of austerity.
Fair enough. Improved social benefits are urgently needed. But do social justice advocates suspicious of basic income really want to preserve the current system of income security? The first question after a recent presentation about basic income was directed to one of the coalition organizers: “If we’re not for basic income, what are we for?”
This imploring question reflects the need for new ideas. Ideas that go beyond stop-the-cutbacks.
The Basic Income Guarantee idea has recently begun to percolate vigorously. The Ontario government has announced a pilot project to explore the idea that everyone should be entitled to a basic income, no strings attached. The Wynne government has asked longtime BIG advocate Hugh Segal to get the ball rolling.
Meanwhile polar opposites on the ideological spectrum — from the Fraser Institute on the right to Canadian Dimension magazine and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives on the left — are publishing reports on BIG. Down the middle comes the University of Toronto’s Mowat Centre.
The Basic Income Charter recently developed by the Kingston Action Group for a Basic Income Guarantee argues for an unconditional, universal basic income — part of a broad social support system including affordable housing, child care, dental care and pharmacare. It offers a just and humane future — some would call it utopian — as well as way to get there.
Set at a livable level, in addition to eliminating poverty, BIG would enable workers to reject low wage, dead end work. It would provide incomes for those who do socially-indispensable caring work outside the paid labour market. It would significantly reduce health, education, and criminal justice costs. It would make it more feasible for women in abusive relationships to leave with their children.
Set too low, however, a basic income would be a recipe for continuing poverty. It would also offer a subsidy for low wage employers.
We all know that such precarious work is proliferating in today’s fractured job market. Manufacturing jobs are shrinking as a result of both technological change and migration to the global south. The same factors are eroding service sector work. Full employment is no longer achievable, if indeed it ever was. Besides, an economy of endless expansion will fry the planet.
Real change has often centred around ideas whose time has come. Ideas commonplace today that were once scorned as utopian: An end to slavery. Votes for men without property. Votes for women. Universal health care.
American economist Milton Friedman, intellectual godfather of low tax, small government doctrines, once said “only a crisis, real or perceived, produces real change. When a crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”
Basic Income — once a Guaranteed Annual Income — has been lying around for long enough. Now is the time to pick it up and put it to work to promote a healthy, sustainable future for all Canadians.
“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at,” wrote Oscar Wilde. “Progress is the realization of Utopias.”
Jamie Swift is a member of the Kingston Action Group for a Basic Income Guarantee and author of a dozen books. He lectures in the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University