Canada can afford a basic income

Paul Walsh published an article in the Winnipeg Free Press on March 15, 2021. Reproduced below is the un-edited version. Enjoy.

PAUL WALSH: Leaving behind my grandmother and his two daughters in rural Ukraine, my grandfather came to Canada over 110 years ago. Approximately 2 years later, in 1912, they joined him on McPhillips Street in Winnipeg where he had acquired 2 acres of land. Four more children later he lost his job because of his participation in the 1919 Strike.

To use a term of the time, the family was “dirt poor”. However, few of the personal problems relating to poverty burdened them. They were members of the Babrover Free Loan Society, and attended weekly meetings on Selkirk Avenue because immigrant families supported each other. So, my grandparents retained their dignity, self-respect, together with a sense of security, and optimism. They were a happy family.

Today, Canada, together with other first world nations, has developed a class system with the result that too many Canadians who live in poverty are not members of happy families. To a very considerable extent their needs are not addressed as an entity. Rather, both government and not-for-profit institutions have classified, segmented, and distorted assistance into discrete categories.

My argument is that the creation of a menu which classifies and focuses on aspects of poverty, and the specific insecurities that flow from it, skewers the single true problem – poverty – and avoids addressing it at its root.

One hundred and ten years after my grandfather emigrated to Canada approximately 28% of Manitoba families live in poverty and have no food, housing, clothing, or other security; both government and anti-poverty programs, together with the bureaucracies that run them, obligate the poor to trade their dignity and self-respect for inadequate assistance.

Food banks, shelters, child poverty, and other categories and subcategories obscure the single problem – which is, not having enough income to live a life with respect and dignity. Dividing poverty into discrete components subverts a solution, which is the provision of sufficient funds to those in need, so that the recipients, not the do- good agencies, are then able to make choices to provide for their basic needs.

If persons in need are provided with a basic income, and with it, the power to choose for themselves, we will eradicate poverty as a class, and with it a substantial component of its social, economic, and political stresses. That does not mean to say that we will solve all of society’s problems. Canadians will continue to need help to deal with a myriad of problems and issues; but poverty in strictly economic terms, and in its most obvious and dramatic face, will be substantially alleviated.

The facts, particularly in Manitoba are stunning.

Manitoba has the highest rate of child poverty in Canada at 31.6%. This is 12% above the national rate. Approximately 38,600 Manitobans work for minimum wage and another 73,700 earn only 10% above the minimum wage. This means that over 100,000 Manitobans, despite working, are living on or at poverty wages.

It is not merely the number of people living in poverty that is distressing but the extent of that poverty. People living in poverty in Winnipeg earn incomes that are 32% below commonly used poverty lines. More than half of all children in female lone-parent families live in poverty. 26% of all single adults live in poverty. 11% of all seniors live in poverty.

According to the Winnipeg Street Census 2015 there were at least 1400 people experiencing homelessness in Winnipeg on the night of October 25 2015. This number does not include people in institutions, including emergency placement by Child and Family services.

The most recent report on food bank use in Winnipeg discloses that 42,595 people accessed food banks in March 2017.

In 2017 there were 85,450 children in Manitoba living in poverty. In 2018 this increased to 87,730 children.

In Canada as a whole, one in 7 Canadians live below the poverty line. This is about 5 million of us with over 1 million being children. According to UNICEF, on a list of 35 developed countries Canada ranks 24th when it comes to preventing poverty by our children. 900,000 Canadians are using food banks every month and over 1/3 of those are children. It is estimated that one in 7 children goes to school hungry every day. In addition to those who have no food security, over 4,000,000 Canadians do not have decent, affordable housing. The best estimates are that over 30,000 people are on the street on any given night while another 50,000 near-homeless stay with friends or relatives.

The problem has been identified. The question that must be answered is: how good a Samaritan do we have to be to our fellow citizens who are in need? Is it enough to have a food bank in place of food security? Is it sufficient to have an overnight shelter in place of housing security? Is clothing from a second hand store the only answer? And finally, should even welfare payments be conditional on meeting the demands of a social worker? The alternative to these segmented solutions, which do not add up to anything approaching sufficiency, is a basic income guarantee which would ensure everyone will receive income sufficient to meet basic needs and live with dignity regardless of work status.

Basic income would eliminate poverty as a status or category, since everyone would have the security of regular direct unqualified income to meet basic needs. It would not solve all problems, but it would eliminate poverty.

And Canada can afford basic income. A recent study from the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, an independent and highly respected arm of the federal Parliament, determined that the gross cost of basic income in Canada would be 76 billion dollars. However, since various existing payouts would be subsumed into a program of Basic Income the net cost to the federal government would be 43 billion dollars. And, there would be a further savings to the provinces by the elimination of social welfare allowances. This reduces the national cost as estimated by Evelyn Forget in her seminal text “Basic Income for Canadians”, to approximately 23 billion dollars, which she points out is the annual cost of the Canada Child Benefit.

Canada does not need further narrow transfer programs with intrusive conditions and rules, and highly stigmatizing consequences. Presently, we are able to afford government payments to each and every person who is of retirement age. We call those payments, old age pensions – not old age welfare. So, we can do the same for each and every adult citizen, and those who do not need the assistance would return the money, as the payment would be taxed. Then, we all, each and every one of us, could be as happy as my grandparents.

We’re all better off when everyone can afford to live.

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