You could say Kingston is something of a leader in Canada when it comes to advocating for a basic income guarantee (BIG).
In December 2015, Kingston City Council became the first municipality in Canada to endorse the idea, and did so unanimously. One of Canada’s foremost advocates for BIG is former senator Hugh Segal, also from Kingston, and the city has an active and influential advocacy group, called Kingston Action Group for a Basic Income Guarantee (KAG4BIG).
“I think it’s safe to say that our Kingston group is the most active and organized of the local basic income groups in Ontario,” says Jamie Swift, a journalist and member of KAG4BIG.
A basic income, as it relates to the concept of BIG, is defined as “a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement.” In a nutshell, supporters believe that every person should be paid a set amount — for example, $1,000 per month — by the government, thereby eliminating or drastically reducing the need for the current welfare system and freeing citizens from many of the stresses of precarious work.
About a year ago, the Ontario government decided to do a basic income guarantee pilot project in one community; at a consultation done on the subject in Kingston on a stormy night in January, about 80 people showed up.
“There’s real interest in the thing, so that’s good,” Swift says.
Yet he notes many people don’t pay serious attention to politics and as such are not acquainted with the concept of a basic income guarantee. To help reach a larger audience, Swift and KAG4BIG have partnered with the local Cogeco channel to produce a two-part program called The Big Idea, one of the first in-depth Canadian television programs to look closely at BIG.
The documentary features prominent local, national and international BIG activists, including Hugh Segal and English economist Guy Standing, co-founder of BIEN — the Basic Income Earth Network; it also focuses on local people living in poverty who have fallen through the cracks of the current system, such as Delina MacDonald, who suffered from PTSD after a stint in the military, and Tom Gumersell, whose life took a turn for the worse after he was run down by a car in a parking lot.
Coproducer Curtis Brunet, from Cogeco, explains that his goal with the documentary is to educate the general public about the ways in which a basic income guarantee could offer much more effective solutions than the current system.
“We’re presenting it with a group who has a point of view, for sure, but for Cogeco this was: how do we educate people about what it [BIG] is? Because usually people’s very first reaction is how do we afford that? You’re giving people money for nothing. The fact is, we’re already doing that. We have a social welfare system that hasn’t worked in 30 years.”
“We live in the richest time in the history of human endeavour in Canada, one of the richest places ever, and we’ve got all this crazy inequality,” Swift adds. “There’s something wrong with this picture and we have to address it.”
The theory is that a basic income guarantee would go far beyond just helping those currently living on social assistance.
“There are people beyond the social welfare system who are working one or two jobs, and they’re still not making enough money to make ends meet,” Brunet says. “That I think is [where education is needed] of what it is and how might it work.”
Furthermore, Swift points out that a basic income could be extremely beneficial to a wide section of the population, including those who are currently middle class and concerned about the future job market for themselves and their children.
“There’s a lot of stuff out there in the last five or six years saying that in big swaths of the service sector, a lot of jobs are going to be shed like crazy. Lots and lots of white-collar jobs are going to disappear. Manufacturing was hit big time by the literal robot, but there’s lots of other insecurities. People are starting to get edgy about that and people of a certain age who may be okay themselves are looking at what their kids are going to be doing.”
Even in the current climate, the rising tide of extreme nationalism seen all over Europe and now North America south of the border is rooted, in part, in economic anxieties caused by disappearing manufacturing jobs.
“There’s growing insecurity, and people who are affected by that are tragically, but not surprisingly, susceptible to crazy nationalist, uber-patriotic, Trump-like appeals,” Swift says. “You’ve got it in Europe, you’ve got it in Hungary, in the Netherlands, in France, the Brexit thing. There are all these scary signs. And what I certainly see in the campaign for the basic income is, ‘look, it doesn’t have to be that way’.”
Beyond that, a basic income could also be a mechanism for enriching society because it would give people freedom to pursue what they are passionate about and talented at, even if these jobs are typically low-paying.
“Artist, journalist, craft worker — if you’re really good at something that doesn’t make a living, this might give society the opportunity to become enriched, more productive, happier,” Swift notes.
You can learn more about the idea of a basic income guarantee and how politicians, professors and other activists are getting involved locally through the documentary The Big Idea. Confirmed upcoming show times for Part 1 are Wednesday, April 19 at 9 p.m. and Wednesday, April 26 at 9 p.m. Keep an eye on local listings for additional airings, as well as airings of Part 2, which is currently still in production.