Walkom: Basic income plan is bread without circuses

Back in the 1970s, a basic income (or guaranteed annual income as it was called then) was seen as way to end poverty.

Those on the right viewed the concept, which in its purest form involves government handing out cheques to everyone below a certain income level, as a way to cut back a debilitating and ruinously expensive welfare system.

Those on the left saw it as a simpler and more humane way to transfer money to the needy. Manitoba’s New Democratic government briefly experimented with the idea.

There were plenty of needy people in those days. Still, poverty was seen as a problem that public policy ultimately could fix – by either tough love or a mixture of compassion and education.

What’s both interesting and disturbing about the discussions over basic income today is that they seem to assume poverty is permanent and unfixable – that it is an inherent part of the modern gig economy.

This, at least, is the impression I get from the Ontario Liberal government’s just-announced plan for basic income pilot projects.

Entitled Giving more people the opportunity to get ahead and stay ahead, the scheme would provide no-strings-attached subsidies to roughly 4,000 people selected randomly from three areas across the province.

To qualify, single people would have to make less than $34,000 a year. Couples would have to make less than $48,000 annually.

They need not be disabled or unable to work. In fact, the government expects that 70 per cent of the recipients will have jobs. But since these jobs don’t provide a living wage, the government will fill part of the gap.

The Liberal plan follows the recommendations of former senator Hugh Segal, a Progressive Conservative who cut his teeth on the guaranteed annual income debates of the ’70s.

His report from last year is very ’70s. It sees basic income as a way to ameliorate the indignities suffered by welfare recipients. It refers to the federal government’s Guaranteed Income Supplement, which goes to poor seniors, as a model for reducing poverty across the economy.

But the Ontario government plan articulated in these pilot projects doesn’t dwell on poverty. Indeed, it is not clear that it will do much more for the poor. The maximum basic income subsidies – $16,989 for singles and $24,027 for couples – represent just 38 per cent of median income in Ontario adjusted for family size.

The government acknowledges that some poor Ontarians would be better off sticking with existing social programs. Recipients of the basic income will lose any welfare or provincial disability payments they now get (although they will be able to keep any free drug and dental care).

If they currently receive Canada Pension Plan or Employment Insurance payments, these will be deducted from their basic income.

Even half of any employment earnings will be taxed back.

Mind you, this is just a three-year pilot program. All of these details could change if and when whoever runs the Ontario government in 2020 decides to proceed with a full-blown basic income plan.

Still, there is a sense of inevitability to all of this – a feeling that the world of work has changed to such an extent that nothing can be done to keep wages at a viable level, and that the only way to avoid social chaos is to subsidize them.

In announcing the pilot projects Monday, Premier Kathleen Wynne said they were part of her “plan for fairness and security in uncertain times.”

That’s not the language of the ’70s. The world, while troubled, seemed more certain when basic income was last the subject of national debate.

Today, everything is up in the air. The jobs not destroyed by free trade are being wiped out by robots and artificial intelligence. For a lucky and diminishing few, there is still lucrative work. The rest must make do with badly paid, precarious employment.

This is the context in which basic income has made its reappearance. Think of it as bread without the circuses.

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs writer.

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