Volume 50, Issue 3: Summer 2016

More smoke than substance in Canadian plans

Ontario wants pilot project, Quebec advocates tiny steps

Giant banner in Geneva Switzerland by campaigners for a universal basic income, May 14, 2016. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/ AFP; posted on cyprusnews.eu.

With the two largest Canadian provinces vowing to take a hard look at some form of basic income program and the federal minister for Families saying the idea merits debate, Canada has been making headlines alongside Switzerland, Finland, the Netherlands and Kenya as a possible pioneer in the realworld exploration of guaranteed income.

There’s little chance Canada will be first to the plate, however. Very little is known about Ontario’s plans beyond a short paragraph in the Liberal government budget speech promising to announce a pilot project this fall. And although the Québec minister responsible for developing his own province’s plans has literally written the book on the subject — François Blais’s 2002 Ending Poverty: A Basic Income for All Canadians — Blais has also made it clear that he favours a go-slow, étapiste approach that could take as much as 20 to 25 years to achieve a full BI program.

While media attention in the global North has focused on the (recently defeated) Swiss referendum, some of the most interesting BI projects and plans are in the global South, from Brazil to South Africa. And not all are government initiatives. The GiveDirectly.org charity is planning on distributing a BI to 6,000 Kenyan villagers over 10 years in a historic program expected to cost $30 million. (They estimate the same project in the global North would cost $1 billion.) By targeting a population that already has an extremely low income, GiveDirectly can affordably conduct what will likely be the world’s first true study of a long-term, universal guaranteed income program that provides for a basic standard of living, including the potential for investments, such as livestock, that can further increase recipients’ incomes.

Back at home, Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa announced the province’s vague intentions in his February budget speech. “The pilot project will test a growing view at home and abroad that a basic income could build on the success of minimum wage policies and increases in child benefits by providing more consistent and predictable support in the context of today’s dynamic labour market. The pilot would also test whether a basic income would provide a more efficient way of delivering income support, strengthen the attachment to the labour force, and achieve savings in other areas, such as health care and housing supports. The government will work with communities, researchers and other stakeholders in 2016 to determine how best to design and implement a Basic Income pilot.”

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne told CBC Radio in March that the proposal arose out of “a real concern around the way social assistance works in Ontario. What we want people to do is build up capacity in their lives so they can be successful.” Wynne said just coming up with the plan will take a year, however, with a program budget only in 2017.

The pilot project is expected to target a specific community or communities rather than across the province as a whole.

Mixed messages in Québec

Québec, on the other hand, could be looking at a gradual implementation of a universal but watereddown BI program, if Blais’s book and recent statements to media are any indication. The former dean of Université Laval’s Social Science faculty, Blais’s slim 101-page treatise is a mostly dry examination of the case for instituting a basic income. Although he expresses strong support for BI, the political scientist wrote that “the main challenge is substituting it as gently as possible” for the current mishmash of direct and indirect government support programs and tax credits.

Blais the politician, however, has been part of a government hell-bent on implementing a policy of austerity despite evidence from around the globe that such polices have actually harmed the neoliberal economies where they have been implemented. And as minister for Employment and Social Solidarity, he has been advocating a form of conditionality that Blais the academic condemned. (The Québec government has introduced legislation aimed at forcing young, first-time welfare recipients to enrol in training programs or face cuts of up to half of their monthly allocation — the type of situation Blais described 15 years earlier something that “will only result in further poverty and exclusion.”)

Blais has acknowledged that BI would be a hard sell. In his book he advocates a level of aid that is “as high as possible,” but mitigates that with concern that a transition that moves too fast or too far may frighten off public support. In recent interviews, he suggested that initial reforms should be revenue neutral, a far cry from the way he described BI a few months earlier as “the most radical idea of the last 50 years.”

As an academic, Blais was adamant that any program be universal, individualized and unconditional — with cheques going to each citizen, rich and poor alike — in order to simplify administration, increase transparency, and eliminate any means-testing associated with receiving government support. “Selective programs are generally stigmatizing and humiliating for the people that are eligible,” he wrote. “They are forced into the situation of petitioners who must show proof of their poverty and put up with constant investigations into their personal life.”

But as Stéphan Corriveau, director-general of a Québec federation of non-profit housing groups, told The Globe and Mail in February, a flawed BI model would hurt rather than help the poor. “The devil’s in the details. A guaranteed national income is both a very promising and threatening (possibility). It could be threatening because some of the proposals that are on the table are actually going to diminish the income of the lower-income part of the population and are being used as a way of dismantling the social security net.”

Ottawa “welcomes debate”

In Ottawa, the current Minister of Families, Children and Social Development is Blais’ friend and former Université Laval colleague, economist Jean-Yves Duclos. Duclos has also studied and written extensively about income equity issues, including a paper with Blais. In a research paper he co-wrote in 2013, however, Duclos concluded that wage subsidies would be a more effective way to help pull the unemployed out of poverty than an unconditional income transfer, which his models suggested might actually increase poverty. Interviewed by The Globe and Mail after his appointment to the Justin Trudeau cabinet, Duclos said that while BI wasn’t a government priority, he welcomed the debate. “There are many different types of guaranteed minimum income. There are many different versions. I’m personally pleased that people are interested in the idea.”

The Liberal Party itself has not endorsed a specific BI program, but a resolution adopted by party delegates in May calls on Liberal officials, “in consultation with the provinces, (to) develop a poverty reduction strategy aimed at providing a minimum guaranteed income.”

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