Is Now the Time for a Universal Basic Income?

The Liberal caucus wants to make UBI a "priority policy resolution" for consideration

Liberal party members have made Universal Basic Income their top resolution which means it will be put forward for debate and vote at their upcoming party convention in November. This means, it could be implemented in Canada by a Liberal government.  We’re a long way from that at the moment. But the idea is not something new. It’s been tested and studying around the world and the Green Party of Canada has long called for something similar.

What is a Universal Basic Income?

Universal Basic Income (UBI) or a Guaranteed Living Income (GLI) is a type of government support that guarantees a basic level of income. Instead of having piecemeal programs like social assistance, employment and disability insurance, the government would give everyone a certain amount of money every month or top up people’s earnings to a certain level. There are different ways UBI or GLI can work but the premise is that it means everyone can afford the basics of life: food, clothing and shelter at the very least.

Advocates of a UBI point to the benefits seen in pilot projects in Canada and around the world. In Ontario, there was a pilot project that was cancelled prematurely. It took place from 2017 to 2019. In this particular experiment, participants received $16,989 per year if they were single, or $24,027 per year for a couple. For every dollar a participant earned, it would reduce their UBI payment by 50 cents and so, by the math of it, the UBO would not be applicable to anyone earning more than $34000 or couples making more than $48000. From the data gathered, the report suggests “participants saw improvements in mental health, housing stability and social relationships, along with less frequent visits to hospitals and doctors that lowered the impact on general health services” (Source)

There are many arguments for and against a UBI. But, at the heart of the idea, is the desire to make sure people have what they need to live.

Poverty and the Brain

Living in poverty not only affects someone’s mental and physical health. Poverty affects brain function. It affects someone’s ability to make decisions about school, finances, and life. If you don’t know how you are going to provide for your family this week, your brain power is taken up with the immediate, making it very hard to make strategic, long-term decisions.
Living in poverty affects the brain (cognitive function) as though there has been a 13 point dip in IQ. Bad decisions are “amplified by —and perpetuate— their financial woes” (source)
An example:
There is a young man who is smart enough to get into university but drops out for financial reasons. He lives in a country with very little social support.
Starts his own little side-of -the road business but, after crunching the numbers, finds he is barely making more than his weekly rent payment. At this point, can’t go back to school as he has a baby son to provide for. He has a piece of land but is struggling to plan- like planting some crops so, for instance, he can use his own coconuts in his snack cart instead of having to buy them. Plant fast growing perennial peas for his family to eat? “Neighbours will just steal them” he thinks. This young man is not stupid or lazy but he is overwhelmed by his poverty and his actions are in line with research. He struggles to plan for the future and make good decisions. Strong social supports would help this young man. A Basic Income would give him the mental breathing room to better his life.
This is a story from a very poor country, yes, but, there are 3.4 million people living in poverty in Canada.
Almost half of people in Canada are living paycheque to paycheque. As we have seen with this pandemic, job loss can happen quickly and on a huge scale. This is one great reason why robust social supports are so important. When poverty is literally affecting your brain function, it’s not just a matter of “pulling up your bootstraps”.
So, whether it’s UBI or other social support, it’s important that they are properly funded and distributed to help those in need. I believe it will make for a better society for all of us.