New income security coalition unites left and right

By Joel Ceausu on February 16, 2015

Few things unite the right and left in Canada, Tim Hortons and hockey notwithstanding, but a not-so-radical idea might be one of them.

Mention “guaranteed income” and most people think “handout.” But there’s a lot more to it, says Jonathan Brun, spokesperson for the Basic Income Canada Network and co-founder of Revenue de base Quebec, working to get Canada to adopt a basic income scheme. 

“It appeals to everyone because it addresses the burgeoning government bureaucracy and maintains a solid social safety net while changing the way government transfers wealth between taxpayers.”

The notion is certainly not new, having been first espoused in antiquity, nor the exclusive domain of the left, when in the 1970s its most prominent promoters were economist Milton Friedman, U.S. President Richard Nixon and U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, says Brun. 

“Guaranteed income would be universal. Everybody gets it, unconditionally: regardless of wealth, assets or income, and is paid to individuals not households.” That differentiates it from welfare, he says, whose benefits depend on roommates, marital status, family and more. 

“That’s very expensive to administer, but a basic income goes into our account at very low cost. The higher cost becomes the money we give to citizens rather than the bureaucratic expense of running social programs.”

A Montreal Web entrepreneur, Brun says a Quebec initiative could work with about $800 a person. “It’s a little higher than welfare – just enough for low-cost housing and some food – but not enough to just sit and do nothing. It encourages the person to get some sort of productive activity to generate more revenue and more personal wealth.”

Also unlike welfare, recipients aren’t penalized for earning income, “which only encourages people to stay home unless they find full-time employment, which is hard in this economy.” What’s more, he says allowing more people to work makes the workforce more flexible by sharing labour across a larger pool in these days of offshoring and workplace automation. 

Just closing down programs like welfare, student loans, family allowance, arts grants and child tax credits would eliminate much of the very expensive system to run it. “Governments look at expenditures and revenues but these are not expenses, these are investments in our population. This gives power back to citizens and we’ll see more economic growth.” 

“Between the federal and Quebec governments there over 600 programs just to fund entrepreneurs. We can collapse all of it. Take the money out of bureaucracy and put it in citizens’ pockets so they can support their business or start something on the side, and create wealth.”

He says most Canadians would probably spend on their home, education, business and family, to change the lives of parents, children, of people close to them. “But don’t think about what others would do with the money,” he says. “Think about what you would do. 

Brun says those who would benefit most would be lower middle class families and the working poor, adding that pilot projects in the U.S. and Manitoba in the 1970s showed more benefits. “Healthcare costs decreased as people sought more preventative care; there were fewer desperate people dealing with the stress of not knowing if they can make the rent, fewer high school dropouts and less crime.” 

(Switzerland will hold a non-binding plebiscite on the issue by the end of next year.) 

Advocates are buoyed by the fact that Quebec’s current Minister of Employment and Social Solidarity Francois Blais wrote a book on the subject and is a personal proponent. Brun says it could work in Quebec whose multiple entitlements and groaning bureaucracy are buttressed by a strong sense of social solidarity. 

“We are building a citizens’ movement to pressure government and see policy changes.” It can be a tough sell: “If you listen for 30 seconds, it seems like another handout, but if you listen for five minutes, you’ll see it’s an extension of the same philosophy that brought us Medicare.”

“Instead of treating symptoms with prisons, health care and big programs, we address the root of the  problem, which is a lack of personal freedom to pursue dreams and ambitions by being deprived of resources. Instead of looking it as a social safety net,” in other words, “try to view it as a floor for everyone to stand upon.”

The official launch of Revenue de base Quebec takes place next month. For information visit: www.revenudebase.quebec or the Basic Income Canada Network www.biencanada.ca


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