I first heard about basic income, or guaranteed annual income, when I was a social work student in the 1970s and heard about the Mincome project in Manitoba. Learning that the province of Manitoba was conducting an experiment whereby all the residents of the town of Dauphin would receive a minimum income impressed me as an idea with a lot of merit. I knew from personal experience that any individual or family can fall into poverty and require financial assistance from the community in which they live. And, having grown up in a small town, I was well aware of the stigma and shame attached to “being on welfare.”
During my childhood, my father suffered from a serious depressive illness that prevented him from working for several years. I was the oldest of four children, and my mother was a full-time homemaker. Although my parents had always saved as much money as they could, the family finances rapidly became very tight—and it was only because my father had been employed in a job that provided some sick benefits that we did not have to go on welfare immediately. At the point when the sick benefits ended, my mother, with help from a local member of Parliament, was able to get assistance from Veterans Affairs because my father had served in the Canadian army during the Second World War. Had he not had that history, our family would have had no choice but to apply for welfare.
Also, in the early ‘70s my first marriage ended, leaving me to raise a one-year-old child without any child support. Fortunately, with the support of my family, I was able to go back to school to get an MSW, and then to support myself and my son through employment as a social worker. In my social work career, I met many other single mothers who had not been so lucky. They were forced to make a life for themselves and their children with the minimal money they received from social assistance; the challenge of making the money stretch for necessities, as well as the stigma, were very real and very demoralizing.
At this stage of my life, now in retirement after having worked for the last 21 years as a social work professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, I am pleased to be able to work with Basic Income Waterloo Region. In addition to my personal experiences, I know that good research supports the argument that our society should, at the very least, experiment with a basic income program as a replacement to our current flawed system of social assistance.
I am especially aware of the research on the social determinants of health and the very negative effects of poverty and low income on health and mortality. See the 2011 report from the National Council of Welfare entitled “The Dollars and Sense of Solving Poverty” for details about how people living in poverty are at much higher risk for chronic illness, mental illness, earlier death, etc., than those with better incomes, and how significantly the direct and indirect costs of these health outcomes affect everyone in our society.
Another research report entitled “Poverty Is Making Us Sick” underlined how “overall utilization of the health care system (along with unmet needs in this system) were disproportionately weighted in favour of the poorest twenty percent of the population, undoubtedly reflecting their significantly poorer health overall” (p. 25).
So, when people ask how would we pay for a basic income program, I point out that much of the cost could be covered over time by the savings in health care that would follow implementation of an adequate basic income policy.
There are other arguments and evidence that support the need for basic income. However, it is important to note that basic income is not a panacea. Governments would still need to provide supports such as subsidized housing, subsidized child care, job training and career counselling as well as health care and dental, drug and vision benefits for those who do not have access to these through employment.
Finally, I believe that in a country with the wealth and resources that Canada possesses, to continue to allow so many adults and children to live in poverty is simply wrong. Basic income is the right thing to do. Furthermore, it is a social program that will improve the quality of life for all Canadians.
Carol Stalker joined the steering committee for Basic Income Waterloo Region in July 2016. She is Professor Emerita in the Faculty of Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University. She lives in Waterloo with her husband, Greg McCaughey.