Canadian governments have over several decades implemented numerous programs and policies to tackle poverty, unemployment, precarious work and unaffordable housing. They have made progress in many areas, but significant gaps remain.
While the overall percentage of people living below the poverty line has fallen, almost 30 per cent of single, working-age adults without children live in poverty. Poverty is also more prevalent among racialized people, those with disabilities, Indigenous Peoples and LGBTQ+ individuals. Social assistance programs are often difficult to access, intrusive and disrespectful of those they are intended to serve.
A basic income — a benefit that would guarantee a minimum annual income to some or all citizens — often comes up as a solution to these problems. It is portrayed as a simple and direct way to raise people out of poverty without requiring intrusive adjudication processes. For proponents, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit rolled out during the early days of the pandemic is proof that the concept works.
The challenges are real, but there is no simple fix
The authors of a new book published by the IRPP provide a comprehensive evaluation of a basic income, using it as the basis for an in-depth look at Canada’s income and social support programs. Like basic income proponents, they view the existing social support system as flawed, but they argue that a basic income is not the best solution to fix these problems. They caution against relying on any single policy tool, particularly one that is centred on a “simple” cash benefit. “We don’t believe there is one simple system that can fix all the problems,” they write. “Rather, we view the issues to be addressed as multidimensional, calling for a suite of responses.”
Basic Income and a Just Society: Policy Choices for Canada’s Social Safety Net is the culmination of a multiyear project that began with the work of the British Columbia Expert Panel on Basic Income. The panel was created in 2018 by the B.C. government to examine whether a basic income could be an effective way to “improve income security, reduce poverty, and address the impact of technological change.” The panel commissioned studies from over 40 Canadian and international researchers and conducted targeted public consultations with organizations that represent and work with those who rely on social assistance.
The IRPP book draws on the work of the panel and other research to provide an in-depth assessment of a basic income and the need for social policy reform in Canada. It paints a detailed picture of Canada’s existing income and social support system and its many failings. It examines arguments for and against a basic income and analyzes its potential to alleviate poverty, its cost and funding issues, and how it would interact with existing programs.
Is it the best tool to achieve a just society?
The idea of a basic income as a primary social policy tool has come and gone many times since the 1960s and has had the support of numerous groups including antipoverty advocates, political parties, government commissions, academics and more recently Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, who predict that advances in artificial intelligence and other innovations will do away with many jobs and require finding an alternative means of distributing income. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which exacerbated social inequities and exposed major gaps in the existing social safety net, once again brought the idea to the fore.
The claims made for a basic income are wide-ranging, extending from reducing poverty and inequality to improving health and educational outcomes, promoting investments in education and entrepreneurial activity, and ultimately transforming society. Proponents also claim that a basic income, designed as an income-tested cash benefit delivered through the tax system without work requirements, would be far simpler and less intrusive than our current income support system.
To assess these claims and the shortcomings of existing programs, the authors review a wide range of evidence from past basic income pilot projects and recent research. But more importantly, they seek to direct attention to a broader question: How do we design a support system to achieve a more just society — one that promotes self- and social respect for all? They propose a framework for policy design and evaluation consisting of 10 principles — adequacy, access, security, responsiveness, opportunity, social connection, public trust, political stability, reciprocity and community-building — and use it to evaluate both existing social support programs and basic income proposals put forward in Canada.
They conclude that the current system clearly falls short of these goals, calling it inadequate, complex, intrusive, paternalistic and disrespectful of the very people it is intended to serve. In this respect, they agree with the proponents of a basic income. However, they argue that making a basic income the centre of a revamped social support system would be equally complex, more costly and leave many of the existing problems intact.
For instance, based on a complete inventory of transfer programs and social services provided by all three orders of government in British Columbia, the authors consider which ones could be effectively replaced by a basic income without creating undue hardships, and conclude that most of them, including those designed to address the needs of people with disabilities, immigrants and refugees, would have to remain in place. Integrating a basic income within existing support systems would only introduce further complexity. (Given the similarities in social programs across the country, the same conclusion would apply elsewhere, they note.)
Also, to deliver a basic income through the tax system in a timely manner, new bureaucratic processes to assess entitlement would need to be created, not to mention the additional mechanisms required to find and reach the vulnerable people who do not file taxes.
The cost of implementing a basic income and how it would be funded are central considerations. Providing a cheque to every Canadian household without any conditions — often referred to as universal basic income — would be prohibitively expensive, the authors conclude. For example, the costs of a universal basic income of $20,000 a year in British Columbia (close to the poverty threshold) would equal the total budget of the province. They show that the only way to implement a basic income that is substantial enough to effectively reduce poverty while keeping costs manageable is to make it income tested — that is, to reduce the amount of benefit provided as recipients’ incomes from other sources rise. Effectively, this means recreating “the welfare wall” so often decried by antipoverty advocates.
Taken together, the authors conclude that a basic income-centred system would be complex and costly. Even so, could it still be the best way to spend our social support dollars? Much of the book focuses on careful examinations of the claims made for a basic income in a range of policy areas. In each case, the authors conclude that a basic income might be useful but there is generally an alternative tool that will produce the same outcomes more effectively and at a lower cost.
What’s more, the problems associated with poverty extend beyond a lack of money. Many targeted services and in-kind benefits that address the particular needs of a diverse population, such as social housing, medical services and counselling, would still be required even if a basic income was implemented, given the high costs involved. And centring the support system on a cash benefit would not help (and might even harm) the development of strong communities that are an integral part of a just society.
In short, a basic income would fail to deliver on its many promises. It would not solve the shortcomings in Canada’s social safety net and it would not lead us toward a more just and inclusive society. Cash transfers will be part of any effective policy reform, but only a part. “It seems preferable, on the face of it, to get to work on fixing what we have rather than replicating the same problems in a different form,” the authors conclude.
If not a basic income, then what?
Existing support programs, although clearly flawed, have stood the test of time and have broad public support. As such, the authors argue, they are the right starting point for reform. Rather than providing specific policy recommendations — which would run counter to the collaborative approach that they favour — the authors propose setting reform priorities based on the following broad policy principles and directions:
Embrace the spirit and passion of basic income proponents in social policymaking
Ultimately, the authors conclude that a basic income is not a magic bullet that can easily fix the shortcomings in Canada’s social safety net. It would not automatically make vulnerable people better off. And neither would it achieve the broader goal of a more just and inclusive society. A justice-based approach, they argue, requires a fundamental shift in how we approach social policymaking to seeing the most vulnerable among us as equal participants in creating a better society rather than simply as “others in need of our help.” They embrace the call for change put forward by basic income proponents but propose using an array of policy tools to get there.
“We see our recommendations as embodying a vision of a Canada that continually strives to use the power of government and the full set of tools at its disposal to balance citizens’ desires for individual autonomy and their need for community,” they write. “It is a place where evidence, outcomes and the lived experiences of those most affected drive positive policy change. It is a place where no one is left behind.”
This book is the culmination of a multiyear project that began with our work on the report of the British Columbia Basic Income Panel. We owe many debts of gratitude and of learning. To start, we are very grateful to have been given the opportunity to work on this project, and for that we thank the government of former premier John Horgan and, in particular, the minister who initiated the project, Shane Simpson, and his successor, Nicholas Simons. We were given considerable resources, excellent data and, perhaps most importantly, intellectual freedom. We have tried our best to earn the trust put in us. We also had excellent conversations with the leader of the Green Party at the time our panel first convened, Andrew Weaver, and the current leader, Sonia Furstenau.
The people who worked with us in the BC Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction — Molly Harrington, Rob Bruce, David Galbraith and Leah Squance — were extremely supportive and we learned a great deal from them. They represent the best of the civil service, cheerfully putting in long hours with a dedication to advancing public policy. We also benefited greatly from comments from people in several others BC government ministries.
Our work builds on that of over 40 researchers who signed up to conduct in-depth studies on everything from financial literacy to child poverty. We are very grateful to them for their time and expertise. We learned a lot from them, and we know that anyone who goes to the website to read their reports will as well. We particularly would like to mention Bill Warburton, who served as the data guru for all the researchers using BC data, as well as contributing his own considerable research expertise. His enthusiasm for doing good with data is infectious. It certainly permeates many parts of our report and this book.
We also employed a troop of graduate and postdoc research assistants who made significant contributions. They are a group to keep an eye on in years to come because they will have much to say about public policy in Canada. They include Jeff Hicks, Gaëlle Simard-Duplain and Marcelo Sacchi at the University of British Columbia, and Daria Crisan at the University of Calgary.
As part of our panel’s background work, we held an open online forum to provide for public input into our discussions and we are grateful to the people who took the time to voice their opinions and concerns. We also met with a variety of community organizations representing different groups in society to hear their opinions and benefit from their expertise. Those groups included (in no particular order) the Basic Income Canada Network, Living Wage for Families Campaign, the Business Council of British Columbia, Ishtar Women’s Resource Society, the Public Health Association (with special thanks to Dr. Réka Gustafson and Dr. Patty Daly), the Fraser Health Authority,
411 Seniors Centre Society, Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, New Westminster Poverty Reduction Initiative, Asian Women for Equality, Livable Income Vancouver and the New Leaf Project. We greatly benefited from having Seth Klein’s help in organizing and moderating many of these discussions. The BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives offered the opportunity to give a public lecture on basic income, which in turn generated a great opportunity for talking with people who cared. The contributions of the co-panellists that evening (Chuka Ejeckam, Trish Garner and Margot Young) were particularly insightful. We also benefited greatly from an online symposium on basic income based on our work that was held with Colin Busby (IRPP) and Garima Talwar Kapoor (Maytree). That event opened our work to a national audience, which was very valuable.
We were also able to tap into a rich vein of salient opinions and contributions by going through the submissions and discussions of the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition. Their work was very thorough and valuable, and we are grateful to have been able to draw from it.
We benefited greatly from access to linked administrative data through the Data Innovation Program in the Ministry of Citizens’ Services. This is a very important initiative and if it did not exist, our report would not exist. The people we interacted with were extremely helpful and forthcoming, always striking the important balance between providing the data needed for effective policy research and protecting citizens’ confidentiality rights. We accessed the data through Population Data BC. Its staff is a model of efficiency and accommodation; we can’t thank them enough.
Finally, we are very grateful to the IRPP for the substantial resources it committed to making this book possible and to the members of the IRPP team who worked on it. Chantal Létourneau was responsible for the layout and the multiple charts, tables and figure. Anne Tremblay produced the design for the cover and the interior of the volume. Their work has made the book more readable and much better looking. Most importantly, we want to express our tremendous gratitude to France St-Hilaire and Rosanna Tamburri. We ended our time as a panel with a government report and a set of important but disconnected research reports, and it would have stayed that way without France. It was her interest in this project and her continual, understated leadership — all done with her characteristic grace, intelligence and humour — that made it possible to extend the project’s work into a book. She took up the editor’s pen and gave our disparate writing a common voice. The result then went through further improvement under Rosanna’s skillful pen. We are very grateful to both of them.
David A. Green is a professor in the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia and was the chair of the British Columbia Expert Panel on Basic Income.
Jonathan Rhys Kesselman is professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University’s School of Public Policy and was a member of the panel.
Daniel Perrin has conducted numerous expert reviews for the B.C. government and participated in the work of the basic income panel.
Gillian Petit is a research associate at the University of Calgary and was a member of the panel.
Lindsay M. Tedds is an associate professor of economics at the University of Calgary and was a member of the panel.
France St-Hilaire is the former vice-president of research at the Institute for Research on Public Policy.
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