Volume 50, Issue 3: Summer 2016

Winnipeg conference looks at real-life experiences

Winnipeg railway underpass, 2008. Photo By Ken Yule.

The North American Basic Income Group held its 15th annual congress in Winnipeg on May 13 to 16. The event brought together activists, researchers and people with experience of poverty from across North America and beyond to discuss an idea that is gaining momentum as a tool for poverty reduction: Basic Income, a program which would pay a guaranteed amount monthly or annually to every adult member of society.

Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in the concept at home and abroad. Pilot projects have been implemented in Kenya and Finland, and a national referendum on basic income was held in Switzerland.

All over Canada, support from community organizations and political parties, along with media interest, has pushed the idea into public consciousness over the past few years. During Manitoba’s last provincial election, the Manitoba Green Party put forward a detailed policy proposal for a negative income tax, while the Manitoba Liberals promised a Minimum Income Pilot program. The federal government has been exploring minimum income and other provinces such as Ontario and Québec are considering implementing programs as well.

It is a concept that goes by many names: basic income, negative income tax, guaranteed annual income, among others. While the basic income rubric covers a wide variety of policy proposals, the public’s enthusiasm about basic income centres around a fairly intuitive idea: our current system of social assistance is not working to end poverty. If we simply gave people enough money to live, we could save elsewhere on administrative costs. And the simple fact of reducing poverty would give rise indirectly to additional savings by relieving pressures on the healthcare and justice systems, for example.

The idea is broad in its appeal and has historically attracted support from across the political spectrum. But as with many good ideas, the difficulties reside in the details. Anti-poverty advocates see the potential of using basic income as a means to reframe the debate about poverty, and as an argument for increasing assistance to low-income people. On the other hand, market fundamentalists like Milton Friedman and Fraser Institute researchers Charles Lammen and Hugh McIntyre have long promoted basic income’s potential for administrative simplification and cutting public sector employment. Between these positions, there is wide room for debate.

Bringing women’s voice forward

A range of approaches and topics for investigation were put forward during the Congress. A key theme was how basic income could meet the needs of communities and groups with higher levels of poverty. One session brought together feminists who talked about how women’s voices could be brought to the fore, and how basic income could be used as a tool for their empowerment. Too often the discussion on basic income becomes mired in technocratic theoretical perspectives far removed from practical realities and lived experience. Previous NABIG congresses have focused on how basic income could be used to help economies transition to a future automated world without work. But such concerns are remote from the immediate preoccupations of women with jobs and families who continue to work double shifts or victims of domestic abuse seeking to escape violence. The voices of people with lived experience of poverty, including Indigenous people and communities of colour, need to be heard if we hope to develop basic income policies that will work in the real world. Congress 2016 was a welcome step forward in this area.

Mincome project centre stage

The conference also aimed to look at what can be learned from various pilot projects over the past few decades. Holding the event in Winnipeg provided an opportunity in particular to reflect on experiments that were conducted in Manitoba in the 1970s. The Manitoba Mincome project was a joint federal/ provincial initiative which operated from 1974 to 1979. It featured the only community-wide “saturation” study ever conducted in North America in which all the adult residents of the town of Dauphin were eligible to apply to the program, subject to a means test. Low-income households in the study were given an income equivalent to 60 per cent of lowincome cutoff levels, extending benefits to households not previously eligible for welfare programs. The amount of the benefit declined at a rate of 50 cents for each dollar earned.

With changes in government and shifting priorities at both the federal and provincial levels, interest in the program waned and funding was cut. The results of the program remained unanalyzed for decades. However, over the past several years, researchers have begun to systematically assess the Mincome program. The 2016 Congress brought researchers together with some of the original civil servants and administrators who designed the program as well as some of the participants who benefited.

In Dauphin, there were noticeable improvements in physical and mental health status and a drop in domestic violence, while employment participation did not significantly decline. By 1978, Dauphin had significantly lower rates of hospitalization than demographically comparable communities in Manitoba, especially for illnesses frequently associated with income insecurity. There were some modest reductions in work hours across the population, estimated at approximately 13 per cent during the duration of the program. However, most of this labour force withdrawal was associated with young people staying in school longer and mothers delaying re-entry to the workforce in order to look after children. There was no significant decrease in the working hours performed by primary wage earners as a result of the program.

Narrow labour market focus

Early proponents of basic income were faced with having to prove that the introduction of benefits would not adversely affect the labour market. Since any reduction in labour market participation was seen as lethal to the implementation of basic income, advocates went out of their way to minimize the extent to which recipients chose to work less. However, one of the main purposes of basic income is to provide much needed time — for studies, child care, recreation and other necessities that are too often deemed luxuries for working class people. Similarly, basic income programs of the 1970s were heavily criticized for some data in U.S. experiments that showed basic income tied to increased likelihood of divorce. Today, it is possible to recognize that at least some of the family breakdown reported in experiments was the result of women having the modicum of economic freedom that allowed them to escape domestic violence. Renewed analyses of the basic income experiments of the 1970s have taken a more nuanced view of these effects.

One practical concern that attracted considerable attention during the conference was the extent to which advocates of basic income should content themselves with government promises of further pilot projects, which are often an excuse for governments to defer implementation of any substantial program, rather than push for immediate implementation. With cost-constrained politicians looking for cheaper ways to say “yes” to activists, pilots can be a dangerous distraction from long-term objectives.

The conference was held jointly at the University of Manitoba and at the Neeginan Centre, an Indigenous training and community development centre in downtown Winnipeg. Thus it successfully wedded community experience and academic research in a way that is often lacking at conferences organized exclusively by universities. Unless we learn from the people experiencing poverty, the data and analyses will remain limited and partial. Meanwhile, the community has much to gain from studies and debates on how basic income has been applied elsewhere.

Despite regrettably minimal media coverage, the conference succeeded in raising the level of debate on basic income and its potential role in creating a more equitable and sustainable society.