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Basic Income: New Year, new look at an old idea




One of the conditions B.C. Green Leader Andrew Weaver made before throwing his support behind the New Democrats — allowing the party to govern after the 2017 election — was that it examine the idea of introducing a basic income for poorer British Columbians.

Last summer, Shane Simpson, the NDP minister of social development and poverty reduction, made good on the arrangement and announced the creation of a three-person panel to look at whether basic income is a viable option to reduce poverty in the province. 

The idea isn’t new. It was first floated in England in the 16th century as a way to cut down on theft by desperately poor people. A basic income provides regular payments to certain, eligible recipients with no conditions attached.

Basic income trials have been attempted most recently in northern European countries such as Finland. Proponents, like Weaver, argue that the giving people a basic income — whether they are employed or not — provides income security and reduces anxiety among the unemployed.

Payment proposals have ranged from $15,000 to $20,000 a year per adult.

“When people have their basic needs met, they have a greater chance of achieving their full potential — they can pursue education and job training or take the risk of starting a new business,” said Weaver in a statement to CBC.

However, opponents — such at the the Canadian Taxpayers Federation — have argued it creates more bureaucracy and is too expensive.

In Canada, the idea has been piloted and tried on a small scale beginning in the 1970s, but has been repeatedly shelved because of prohibitive potential costs or lack of political support. 

In the 1970s, the province tested an annual age for the working poor. What happened? 2:09

$4 million for study

In its last budget, the B.C. government allocated $4 million over two years to study the issue again — in-depth and with a B.C. focus this time. 

The committee will be chaired by David Green of the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia.

The other two members are Jonathan Rhys Kesselman of Simon Fraser University and Lindsay Tedds from the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary.

The trio will oversee approximately two dozen independent research projects ranging from the impact of automation on the labour market, alternative structures for income support, financial literacy and even patterns of homeless shelter use.

They are also seeking public feedback. Then, they will have until early 2020 to come up with a report based on the new information.

Ontario is cancelling a pilot on Basic Income in the spring. (Matt Prokopchuk/CBC)

The concern is that half of Canadian jobs are at risk of automation in the next decades and others will be contract and part time. Simpson said a basic income would help the hundreds of thousands of B.C. residents living in poverty.

“B.C. has one of the highest poverty rates in Canada, yet we are one of the wealthiest provinces,” said Simpson in a statement to CBC.

“It is vital that we look at every option and every opportunity to make life better for the 557,000 people who are living in poverty here,” said Simpson in a statement to CBC.

The committee will also consider how basic-income principles might be used to improve the existing income support system, he said. 

Could cost billions

Jonathan Rhys Kesselman, an economist who specializes in taxation policy, public finance and social policy, said it could cost billions of dollars to pay for basic income.

But he says many people would argue the current welfare system is “mean, it’s stingy, it is stigmatizing and it’s administratively costly.”

Evidence from basic income pilots done in Canada and elsewhere, he says, indicate that attitudes to paid work don’t change, but more married women and young workers 18-24 years-old, opt to work less.  

The report could also focus on reforms to the current income assistance system to make it less stigmatizing and easier to access, he said.

But critics worry that basic income could be added on top of the existing welfare system and the cost would be prohibitive.

Kris Sims of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation points to the Finnish pilot that was abandoned recently when it was calculated that taxes would have to increase by 30 per cent to cover costs.

“Four million dollars to spend on something you already know doesn’t work, that just doesn’t make any sense,” Sims said.


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Majority of Canadian workers willing to take less pay for a workplace pension plan: survey




A majority (70 per cent) of Canadians say they’re willing to forgo a higher salary in exchange for a workplace pension plan, according to a new survey for the Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan by Abacus Data.

The survey, which polled more than 2,000 Canadian adults in April, signals an opportunity for employers to build back the post-coronavirus pandemic working landscape better by expanding access to good retirement plans — whether they’re defined benefit, defined contribution or group registered retirement savings plans, says Steven McCormick, senior vice-president of plan operations at the HOOPP.

According to the survey, a secure retirement remains of greater concern for Canadians than concerns about their health, debt load and job security. McCormick says this has been a consistent worry the HOOPP has seen in survey results over the past couple of years. Nearly half (48 per cent) of respondents said they’re very concerned about having enough money in retirement, while 31 per cent were highly concerned about their personal debt load and 26 per cent cited their job security. Close to half of respondents expressed high concerns for their physical (43 per cent) and mental (40 per cent) health.

In addition, the pandemic has harmed the finances of more than half (52 per cent) of Canadians’ surveyed and it’s had a particularly disproportionate affect on the finances of younger adults. Adults aged 44 and younger said they’re twice as likely (25 per cent) to have had their finances greatly harmed, compared to those over the age of 60 (12 per cent).

Generally, younger adults tend to work in roles that may have been impacted most by the pandemic, says McCormick, whether in service industries that were shut down or frontline health care that have been busy but don’t always come with access to a pension plan. “Affordability is an issue, so I think their worries increased during this time.”

And while almost half (46 per cent) of Canadians surveyed said they’ve saved more money than they would have since the onset of the pandemic, among these respondents, over half (52 per cent) didn’t put any of their savings toward their retirement. Overall, most (63 per cent) Canadians surveyed haven’t set aside or saved anything for retirement in the past year, a five-point increase since 2019.

McCormick says this may be due to uncertainty or hesitancy about whether people’s immediate needs outweigh longer-term needs. And with 55 per cent of respondents noting they were very concerned about the cost of day-to-day living, he adds that rising prices have fuelled insecurity and worries so people are creating their own emergency funds right now.

While there’s a segment of the population who’ve saved more and, for them, the pandemic has created wealth, he doesn’t see this as a common narrative in the survey data. “If you don’t have access to a workplace pension or the opportunity to have things like automatic enrolment, the uncertainty of the time may have you holding onto money,” says McCormick. “In Ontario, we’re more optimistic about the pandemic than we were maybe a month ago, but there are still people worrying about whether there’ll be a fourth wave.”

In addition, more than two-thirds (67 per cent) of respondents said a retirement crisis is looming and 65 per cent said saving for retirement is prohibitively expensive. It’s a common and shared dream for many people in looking forward to a secure retirement, says McCormick, noting for many, making that dream a reality remains elusive.

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