KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – It is an utterly miserable life for those of us who depend on income assistance in Nova Scotia. You get way too little money, your caseworker is overworked and often lacks empathy, the system is error prone, and rules often are bizarre and somehow always to the department’s advantage. And that is on a good day…
No wonder many of our readers who are on welfare are excited about the idea of a guaranteed basic income. You’d get a cheque every month, so the story goes, no questions asked, no nagging, no annual reviews, no case workers.
It’s also an idea that is gaining momentum in Canada. Earlier this year Ontario announced details around a three-year basic income pilot, starting this year. 4,000 people between ages 18 and 64 will be invited to participate. PEI is planning something similar, and the newly elected NDP government in British Columbia also is looking into it.
Here in secretive Nova Scotia we are told that basic income is being considered as part of the Community Services transformation project, and we will be informed of what that means when the department is ready to do so.
What the Ontario example shows is that it’s better to approach basic income with caution and a healthy dose of suspicion.
The Ontario pilot includes not just people on welfare, but other people on low incomes as well, people earning minimum wage or slightly above, and people with precarious jobs who are only able to work certain shifts, or who work more than one job. What all have in common is that they’re poor.
People in the pilot may be slightly better off than their counterparts on welfare, but poor they’ll stay, even with a basic income.
Single persons will be guaranteed to receive up to $16,989 per year (or $1415.75 per month), and couples up to $24,027. If you have a job the government will claw back no less than 50% of what you earn. You will be allowed to keep whatever other government supports you receive, things like your child tax credits.
For reference, an annual living wage in Toronto is calculated at $38,521, for Windsor (Ontario) it is $29,432. A living wage is the amount a person needs to buy food, rent an apartment, cover the necessities like heat, phone and transportation, and have a bit left over for whatever need arises. Enough to live a life in dignity, as it is sometimes described.
Not only will you stay poor under the Ontario pilot, invasive and controlling policies are also bound to stay. The basic income pilot in Ontario is designed as a program for people on low incomes, and that implies some sort of means testing to establish whether you are indeed deserving of a basic income.
People living with disabilities will face additional challenges. They will receive up to $500 on top of the standard basic income amount, and critics have argued that depending on the type of disability that may not be enough.
Special diet allowances, bus passes, and other disability supports built into Ontario’s income assistance program will no longer apply, so the extra $500 (or less) that you’d receive will have to cover all that.
And just like when on welfare you will have to prove that the disabilities you live with are genuine. That is worrisome when you consider how governments have been chipping away at that definition over the last decade. Stories of caseworkers challenging doctors’ opinions are pretty common here in Nova Scotia, there is nothing in the Ontario pilot to suggest that would stop.
A guaranteed basic income is a lovely idea, but the Ontario pilot shows that the devil is in the details. Poverty activists in Nova Scotia need to start thinking about the issues that basic income raises and understand both its benefits and pitfalls, as well as where it fits in terms of our agenda.
What is it about the current welfare system that it is deemed so much beyond repair that basic income becomes the only answer? To what extent is basic income a government subsidy for employers allowing them to continue to exploit precarious workers? Will basic income become an excuse for austerity governments to dismantle what is left of our social safety net? Are these basic income pilots affecting thousands quickly becoming an excuse for governments to postpone making real changes affecting the majority of people on welfare?
These are all fair and urgent questions. Poverty activists in Nova Scotia need to decide where to focus their energies in terms of a political agenda. Expect much more on this in the coming months.
For a good variety of opinions check out the Policymaker’s Guide to Basic Income, by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. For a critical look at the Ontario pilot read what anti-poverty organizer John Clarke has to say. And check out the Basic Income Canada Network for a decidedly more rose-coloured view.
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