“A basic income is not a panacea, nor does it displace other policies that work. But it could very well be a key that unlocks multiple possibilities, allowing a range of policies and services to be more mutually supportive, fostering social solidarity and democracy, unleashing creativity and smoothing transitions.” — Sheila Regehr, October 17, 2016
Three eminent panelists led a discussion on the proposal for a basic income guarantee and Ontario’s coming pilot project. The need to re-think the concept of work and the unsustainability of the current system of income assistance were some of the themes discussed.
On October 17, 2016, United Nations Day for the Eradication of Poverty, some 75 people gathered at the Bronson Centre in Ottawa to learn about and discuss the proposal for a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG). The meeting was MC’d by Adrian Harewood, local CBC TV news anchor. The panel consisted of Sheila Regehr, chairperson of the Basic Income Canada Network (BICN); Linda Lalonde, co-chair of the Ottawa Poverty Reduction Network and member of GO4BIG; and Paul Vallée, founder, chair and CEO of Pythian IT Consulting and member of the Board of BICN.
After explaining the BICN’s role, Sheila covered the basics of a BIG, and why we need one, asserting that a social transformation, a paradigm shift, is urgent with regard to income security and social assistance. Two aspects stand in the way of achieving this transformation: (1) some proponents’ claim that a BIG would replace all social services, countered by others who feel more services are needed — neither are true; and (2) the fear that a BIG would be a work disincentive — there is no evidence for that but we need to enlarge the concept of work to include all that needs to be done to sustain a healthy society and economy. On the Ontario pilot, Sheila urged the audience to make the best of it and recommended reading Evelyn Forget’s recent paper, Pilot Lessons (Mowat Research #126, September 2016).
Linda confirmed that Ontario’s social assistance programs do not cover basic living expenses. She discussed some aspects of an Ontario pilot and of basic income generally, pointing out that a BIG would be accessed only by those who need it. Whatever program is decided upon, it must be safeguarded against future changes in government. In closing, she noted that 2016 is the 500th anniversary of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia!
Paul spoke from life experience to assert that a BIG could lead to an explosion inentrepreneurship, both economic and social. He noted that an appetite for risk concentrates wealth. He foresees an acceleration of technological unemployment, reaching a turning point within the next ten years. Will we evolve deliberately to a post-scarcity society, or will we succumb to a dystopia, with ever-increasing inequality? The choice is ours.
A good number of questions and comments followed. One theme was whether a BIG would let employers off the hook, reducing the incentive to offer fair wages. Would there be downward pressure on wages? Paul responded that, on the contrary, wages will increase because some workers will opt out of being a low-wage earner. He referred to a recent book by Andy Stern, Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream (2016). A BIG would increase people’s economic freedom and increase their bargaining power.
Another theme was about the nature of work and whether people would continue to find meaning in work. Sheila replied that basic income will always be just basic. People are hard-wired to engage with others. Many tasks are worthwhile and motivating. There would be more time for community engagement.
How can we convince the naysayers? Some will never be convinced but there is solid evidence (much of it available on the the BICN website) about the positive effect on health, food security, equality, dignity and more. Personal stories are helpful. Honest debate and willingness to compromise are essential. (Former President Nixon’s proposal for a BIG was defeated by the American left).
Can we afford a BIG? Some engage in scare-mongering about the cost, citing nonsensical figures like $400 billion. One calculation puts the cost of poverty in Ontario at $32 -38 billion a year. A BIG would result in savings in health care, crime protection and more. Higher wages will generate more tax revenue. Reference was made to the work of Michael Marmot on the relation between health status and inequality and of Guy Standing on precarious employment and the costly failure points of the current system. What we cannot afford is to continue with the present system!
In conclusion, audience members were encouraged to keep an eye on the coming consultations about Ontario’s pilot proposal via Facebook or the websites of BICN or GO4BIG.