CANADA has a class system that essentially ignores the needs of the poor. Existing government and not-for-profit institutions have classified, segmented, and distorted assistance into discrete categories.
The creation of a menu that classifies and focuses on aspects of poverty, and the specific insecurities that flow from it, skewers the single true problem: poverty. And it avoids addressing poverty at its root.
Approximately 28 per cent of Manitoba families live in poverty. They have little food and housing security. New clothing is a luxury. Government and anti-poverty programs, together with the bureaucracies that run them, obligate the poor to trade their dignity and self-respect for inadequate assistance.
Food banks, shelters, child poverty and other categories, and subcategories, obscure the single problem, which is not having enough income to live a life with respect and dignity. Dividing poverty into discrete components subverts a solution, which is the provision of sufficient funds to those in need. The do-good agencies make choices to provide for basic needs on behalf of the recipients.
If those in need are provided a basic income, we will eradicate poverty as a class. It would also alleviate a substantial component of poverty’s social, economic, and political stresses.
The facts about Manitobans living in poverty are stunning: Manitoba has the highest rate of child poverty in Canada, at 31.6 per cent— 12 per cent above the national rate; approximately 38,600 Manitobans work for minimum wage, and 73,700 earn only 10 per cent above the minimum wage. This means more than 100,000 Manitobans, despite working, are living on or near poverty wages.
On Oct. 15, 2015, a Winnipeg Street Census noted that 1,400 people were homeless. This number does not include people in institutions, including emergency placements by Child and Family Services. While the number of people living in poverty is staggering, the extent of that poverty is distressing. In Winnipeg, more than half of lone-parent families; 26 per cent of single adults and 11 per cent of seniors live in poverty.
The 2017 report on Winnipeg food bank use disclosed that 42,595 people had used such services. In 2017, 85,450 Manitoba children were living in poverty. This number increased to 87,730 in 2018.
Canadian statistics are not much better: one in seven Canadians live below the poverty line — this amounts to about five million of us, with more than one million being children. According to UNICEF, out of 35 developed countries, Canada ranks 24th in child-poverty prevention. And 900,000 Canadians use food banks monthly — more than one-third are children. Approximately one in seven children goes to school hungry — every day.
In addition to food insecurity, more than four million Canadians lack decent, affordable housing. Approximately 30,000 people are on the street nightly, while an additional 50,000 stay with friends or relatives.
So the problems have been identified. The questions, however, remain. How good of a Samaritan should we be to those in need? Do food banks solve food insecurity? Is it sufficient to have an overnight shelter in place of a home? Is clothing from a second-hand store the only answer? And finally, should those in need sacrifice dignity for welfare that is tied to the discretion of a social worker?
The answer to those questions is basic income. Basic income is a set guaranteed income sufficient to meet basic needs and allow people to live with dignity, regardless of work status. It would eliminate poverty as a status or category. Everyone would have the security of regular direct, unqualified income to meet basic needs.
A recent study from the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, an independent and respected arm of the federal government, determined that the gross cost of basic income in Canada would be $76 billion.
This cost decreases when we consider how various existing payouts could be subsumed into a program of basic income. The net cost to the federal government would be $43 billion. The elimination of social welfare allowances would create further savings to the provinces, meaning basic income would actually cost Canada $23 billion.
According to Evelyn Forget, author of Basic Income for Canadians, this is the annual cost of the Canada Child Benefit.
Canada does not need further narrow transfer programs with intrusive conditions and rules; nor does it need to enforce stigmatizing consequences. We can afford to pay all Canadians a basic income, void of conditions.
The country has a program upon which basic income can be modelled: Old Age Security. Government payments are sent to every person of retirement age; we call these payments old-age pensions, not old-age welfare. We can follow this model for each adult citizen. Those who do not need the assistance would return the money, through Canada’s current progressive tax system.
Canada can afford basic income, provide dignity and eliminate poverty.
Paul Walsh is a Winnipeg lawyer and a member of Basic Income Manitoba’s board of directors.