Is a guaranteed basic income the solution to poverty?

I don’t think so. I’m a socialist and I still don’t think so. In fact, it’s because I’m a socialist that I think it’s a bad idea.

We all know that housing costs in Canada – Toronto and Vancouver in particular – are crazy. And when I say Toronto, I’m essentially referring to the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) because as prices have risen exponentially in Toronto proper, many people have migrated further and further outside of the city, trying to snatch up homes that aren’t cheap but still somewhat affordable. This drives local prices up to such an extent that people who’ve lived in peripheral cities as far out as Guelph are saying that if they sell their houses, they won’t be able to buy a another one in the same community. Everyone is getting priced out everywhere. In Hamilton, for example, residential real estate is still significantly cheaper than in Toronto, but home prices have shot up 70% according to a recent report by the Canadian Real Estate Association.

Minimum wage won’t get you very far in these circumstances, and the fact that the Progressive Conservative government headed by Doug Ford cancelled an increase from $14 to $15 which was planned by the Liberals doesn’t help. But we knew they were going to do that before Ford was elected Premier. What we didn’t know – because they said they wouldn’t do it – was that they would cancel the Ontario Basic Income Pilot. I think it’s unethical and irresponsible to renege on a campaign promise, especially when people will reasonably make important life choices based on that promise. There was no warning, and as far as I’ve been able to determine, no alternative support system implemented to help people who are going to have serious problems as a result. What happens to a person who signed a new lease and now won’t be able to afford the rent? Whatever one’s assessment of the effectiveness of the pilot in alleviating poverty, the about-face was dirty.

I read a news story about a Hamilton couple who found out they were accepted for the basic income pilot in May 2018. At this point, Justine Taylor had already found out she was pregnant and the couple say they were having trouble finding work. They say they wanted to go back to school and start a business. I don’t know if this is the sort of thing people say to reporters to make it look like they’re trying to be gainful contributors to society, but owning a business isn’t a right. Most of us – me included – don’t work for ourselves, nor do we have the resources to do so.

Again, it was wrong for the government to cancel the pilot in July 2018 without warning, knowing that families would have put plans in place to move, have a child, etc. But I actually don’t think the Liberals should have started the pilot to begin with.

Let’s take a closer look at this couple from Hamilton. They failed to use birth control, both preventative and retroactive. This is Canada, where all the reproductive health care one could want is available. Birth control really isn’t that expensive between two people. Condoms exist – and the morning after pill is available over the counter in drug stores if something goes wrong. This couple already had a nine-year old child and were struggling financially. Their decision to have another child was a poor one, made well before the pilot was an option. Why should people like myself subsidize these choices? As it is, I’m not exactly thrilled that I have to contribute funds for education and medical services for children I’ll never have. As a child-free woman renting alone in the north end of Toronto, I have a hard enough time paying the rent, utilities, bills, and saving for a home and retirement all by myself.

Quality full-time work is hard to come by, but there’s always someone hiring. When I graduated from university, I couldn’t find work in my field and worked as a cashier to make rent. I didn’t want to do that. I was ridiculously overqualified, bored and disappointed. But the truth is that there are jobs out there, just maybe not the ones we want. Two people can find full-time jobs in Hamilton and find a decent apartment for a lot less than I’m paying on my own.

There’s so much emotional rhetoric around the issue. Taylor comments that the pilot is “making people realize that we are people, too.” Who’s saying they’re not people?

I started to question the value of this project while reading news articles that described the changes people were able to make in their lives as a result of the pilot. Some were on disability, barely scraping by, so the extra cash made a huge difference to them. But shouldn’t the government instead focus on fixing disability support programs so that people who truly can’t work are getting enough money to live dignified lives? This seems to me to be a classically liberal attempt to put a band-aid over systemic economic problems. I don’t support the PCs; I’m critical of their decision to scrape back welfare payments and freeze the minimum wage. I also think that the welfare system as it exists doesn’t provide enough incentive for people to find work, and there are all kinds of people collecting social assistance who shouldn’t qualify. Rather than patching up a broken system, we need to rebuild it so that it works for everyone.

Who pays the price for an inadequate social assistance regime and minimum wage? Workers. The basic income pilot was a gift to employers, especially large corporations. They don’t have to pay their workers a decent wage and invest in good benefits – taxpayers will do it for them. This shifts the onus of compensating for an exploitative financial system from the capitalist class – those who control and benefit from it – to those who are less so, but nevertheless, also exploited by this system. This isn’t progressive policy.

I actually agree with Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod that we shouldn’t be paying people for doing nothing, that it sends the wrong message that you can get free money and not be expected to work for it. There are many people who will put that money to good use. There are also a lot of lazy, careless people who will piss it away. Why should anyone bankroll that? One individual said she was using her installments from the pilot to pay off her credit card. Maybe she accrued that debt because she didn’t have any other way to pay legitimate bills. Or maybe not. I read another report (can’t find it now) in which someone said she used the extra income to lend money to a friend. Does this sound like a fair, responsible program?

The basic income pilot was a program that helped some deserving people, made some people feel virtuous, and encouraged waste and the perpetuation of a broken system. Making promises and then pulling the rug out from under people made things worse, but it didn’t get us to where we are now.

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