Universal Basic Income touted at Rotary Club of Picton meeting

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Winnipeg-based author and Universal Basic Income( UBI) advocate Evelyn Forget offered Rotary Club of Picton members an in-depth look on the concept that would give impoverished Canadians a step out of poverty with a guaranteed monthly income.

Speaking to the club via Zoom Tuesday, Forget, author of Basic Income for Canadians: From the COVID-19 Emergency to Financial Security, as well as other titles, spoke about a need for a UBI for Canadians and how such a program would positively benefit all segments of society.

Forget is a professor of Economics and Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Her research examines the health and social implications of poverty and inequality. Forget has worked with various governments, First Nations groups and international organizations to advise on those topics.  Forget believes that a guaranteed income delivered with dignity will make a huge difference in many human lives, especially during these difficult times we’ve all been living in the past year or more and is actively working towards economic security for all Canadians.

Forget’s  first introduction to basic income happened more than a decade ago.

“I’m actually a health economist, I work in the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg and this is in the core of Winnipeg, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Canada and our clientele is made up largely of people from the surrounding neighbourhood and people from remote northern communities who are flown into Winnipeg for complex surgery for example.

The author noted that close proximity to the hospital and Winnipeg Harvest, the province’s largest food bank provided more than ample opportunity to delve into the root causes of client and patient visits.

“You don’t have to talk to many patients in the waiting room or to talk to the clinicians or to walk through the hallways to realize that were using the health care system to treat the consequences of poverty. People are in hospitals, not usually because their victims of a virus or victims of some unusual and complex circumstance, they’re there because in many cases they’ve lived really hard long lives, working in hard jobs, living in inadequate housing, living with poor diets,” Forget explained. “It’s very frustrating to work under those circumstances because when your a health economist the only question people ever ask for you is how are we going to pay for the healthcare system going forward? and you want to shake people sometimes and say we don’t need more money in the healthcare system, what we need is more money in peoples hands so they can make decisions and live reasonable lives and take care of themselves before the consequences of poverty come to bite.”

While the hospital and the food banks might provide tertiary fields of scope on issues like complex physical maladies and food insecurity, Forget believes there is an under current when it comes to the emotional toll of living in or on the edge of poverty and many Canadians are using pharmaceutical assistance to combat psychological effects.

“I was having lunch with a group of volunteers who were also clients of the food bank and all of us women were sitting around a table and one woman started to tell a long and complicated story that got more and more confused in the telling. She stopped mid way and laughed and blamed her confusion on brain fog that she attributed to a recent change in her medication,” Forget recalled. “What happened next shouldn’t have surprised me, people started to talk about their prescription drugs and they were reaching into knapsacks and into purses and pulling pill bottles out and comparing. And I realized with a bit of a shock that I was the only person at that table who didn’t have a prescription for an anti-depressant. I found that shocking but I shouldn’t have because I know that in Canada we medicate the consequences of poverty, we medicate poverty, we medicate the anger and the despair of parents who can’t feed their kids with out recourse to a food bank.”

Forget contends that mentally unburdening those that are living under the spectre of poverty will lead to a better life for all Canadians.

“Basic income is a guarantee that no one will have to live with out the resources necessary to live a modest but dignified life,” said Forget. “It’s not a replacement for necessary social services like health care or special supports for people with disabilities, but it is a guarantee that everybody will have the cash they need to put a roof over their heads, put clothes on their backs and food on the table. It will lead to richer and healthier societies.”

According to the author, UBI is a feasible and affordable policy in Canada that it doesn’t encourage people to work less and won’t lead to cuts in other social programs. But why would some Canadians need a basic income when every province in Canada has a program of last resort such as Ontario Works or in Manitoba the Employment and Income Assistance?

Professor and author Evelyn Forget. (University of Manitoba)

“Why isn’t that good enough?” Forget expressed. “For those of us who have been fortunate enough in our lives to have never dealt with that system, we would imagine it’s a fairly straight forward process. We call up our case worker, we go in, we talk about our needs and we somehow receive a certain amount of money thats based on our families size that allows us to live a reasonable life. In fact as soon as you apply for that program you discover that provincial income assistance is actually a complex array of different allowances. And two people in very similar circumstances can find themselves receiving different amounts of money depending on how helpful their caseworker is, depending on what they know to ask for, depending on how well they understand the system.”

In addition to be highly complex and unbalanced from applicant to applicant given the aforementioned situations, it’s extremely intrusive.

“When you apply, a caseworker can call your bank, can call your landlord, your employer and check any information you provide,” said Forget. “You’re required to provide whatever information is requested at any point on a penalty of losing your benefit or having your payments reduced. It’s a punitive system.”

If someone happens to secure  a part-time job for example and make more money, the benefit would be reduced and that seems reasonable. However, for those families that rely heavily on Ontario Works benefits for drug plans, dental plans, etc, a part-time job is very much a losing proposition.

“We would expect that to happen but if you think about the way Ontario Work operates for example it does more than that. The program doesn’t just provide money to people it also provides a whole array of extended health benefits like dental care for example, and other supports. So if you take a part time job and make enough money to get off the system, you lose not only the monetary benefit you did receive but all kinds of other supports that make you much worse off if you’re working, than if you’re actually on the system.”

Forget also explained how your benefit can be reduced if the system thinks parents can support you in any way.

“Suppose you’re a 35 year old adult with a disability, if you receive a gift from your parents, perhaps they let you live in the family home or they provide groceries for you on a regular basis, your benefit will be reduced by the amount of that gift which makes it very difficult for people to get ahead. One example that’s currently part of a court case in Manitoba was an individual who worked previously and became disabled. As soon as he turned 60,  the system cut him off and wanted to force hime to apply early for his Canada Pension Plan pension which meant a reduction of 30 per cent of what he would have gotten at age 65. That would virtually guarantee that the individual lives in poverty for the rest of his life. So you’re required to apply for any other system, any other amount of money that might be owing to you, to rely on family members when possible,” Forget said.

“The system is not there to help you get ahead, it’s there to maintain you in poverty. If, after all of that you do qualify for support, in every province in Canada you’ll receive an amount of money that is well below the poverty line.”

Forget pointed out even before the pandemic a third of Canadians were already employed in precarious jobs and how the Employment Insurance program is built for the kinds of jobs Canadians use to get. UBI would be able to bridge the new job market where temporary contracts for younger employees seem to be the new norm.

“Even before COVID-19 came along, a third of Canadians were already employed in precarious jobs- low wage jobs with insecure futures, with few benefits, no union support, no certainty, no guarantees that those jobs are going to exist going forward. A third of Canadians. When COVID-19 came along EI was there for the unusual circumstance, an unusual short term lay off or a period of ill health. But now people are graduating and entering a very different kind of a labor market. So when my students graduate for example, almost all of them spend years and years on temporary contracts, they work with no benefits, very often with low wages and with no certainty for a very long period of time. So a basic income can actually backfill, it can actually provide security in a market where we can’t rely on jobs to do that anymore.”

A UBI would allow greater participation into modern society, providing a precipitating uplift to physical and mental health.

“If you think back to the story I started with of medicating poverty,” said Forget. “I think that its not a surprise to people that mental health is affected by living in poverty, particularly in a high income country like Canada where you need a certain amount of money in order to participate in society. You need access to that and if you don’t have it your mental health tends to suffer. But the pandemic also showed us how poverty and infectious diseases are linked. We know some of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19 happened in areas of the country where frontline workers were working in unsafe conditions- in Western Canada in the slaughter houses and meat packing plants and warehouses in Ontario.”

But whit a steady stream of base income, where will the encouragement to seek employment come from? Utilizing data from a pilot project launched in Manitoba in the late 1970’s called “Minicome”, Forget was able to drill down on employment rates and exactly who did and didn’t enter the work force.

“There is a lot of basic income experiments that have taken place all over the world- low, middle and high income countries and the results are very much the same,” said Forget “If you were working before UBI was introduced, people will typically continue working. People don’t stop working just because they can get money for nothing because people recognize work is important in their lives.”

But when Mincome came along there were two groups of people who did work less. The first were new mothers, and for those who can remember the 1970’s, this was a time when maternity leave was four weeks. Forget said in her research, a whole lot of new mothers thought a four week maternity leave when they gave birth was rather miserly and so they tended to use the Mincome stipend to buy themselves longer parental leaves.

“And that’s really a good thing because one of the things we know is families are better off, babies are better off, mothers are better off when parents can spend more time with newborns, and in fact we’ve implemented it by making a parental leave much more easily excess able now, much longer,” she said.

The second group of people who worked less are exactly the people everybody was worried about-young men. Data indicated to Forget young men worked up to 10 per cent less than their cohorts.

 Forget went looking for some of these young men who were no longer young men just to find out what happened. Why were they working less? What happened when Mincome came along? n

“The story the men told me is exactly what you might expect,” Forget said. “When were talking about young men, we’re talking about 15-24 year olds and what I found out speaking to them was that they were living in low income families who are under a fair amount of family pressure to become self supporting as quickly as they could. These were big families, farm families without a lot of money, and so the boys in particular would turn 16 and their families would encourage them to go get a job so that the family money could go to younger brothers and sisters.”

Instead of dropping out of school and going to work, Forget found eligible applicants were able to finish secondary school and that allowed them much more secure start to their adult life than if they dropped out to work a lower-skilled job.

Forget stated those results are very consistent with results found all over the world with two recent experiments, one in Finland and one in the Netherlands, in both cases they found people didn’t work less if they received a basic income but people who received a basic income when they were unemployed were more likely to move into regular permanent jobs than people who were unemployed and didn’t received a basic income.

“It allowed them the stability to find a job that matched their needs,” Forget expressed.

Another big question often asked is how can we afford a UBI? And especially after COVID-19 and after all the expenditures of the past year?

“Earlier in April the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) did an analysis of UBI,” said Forget. “And I should say that the PBO is peopled by really old school economists, there is not a radical in the bunch, they don’t hire Marxists, I mean these are mainstream economists. And they were asked what it would cost if we were to introduce a basic income for all of Canada. They found that the cost of a basic income might be as high as $85 billion dollars a year across Canada.”

Forget admitted that figure is a massive line item for the Government of Canada.

However, as a country, we are already spending $85 billion dollars and more on other programs to send money to people with low incomes.

“We are spending it on provincial income assistance which is about half that. We are spending it on a series of tax credits at the provincial and federal levels such as refundable tax credits. We are spending it on things like the GST credit and other programs. So what the PBO has discovered is they could take money we are already spending to send money to low-income people and spend that money smarter. And if we did it, we would reduce the poverty rate by 49 per cent. We could cut poverty in half with no new taxes, no cuts to existing programs, no increases in the tax rates. They weren’t even thinking about potential down stream savings and things like healthcare or criminal justice or any other programs, this is just taking money that is already being spent addressing poverty and spending it better, taking some of those dozens and dozens of different programs that don’t fit peoples needs and ensuring that it does.”

Forget ended the presentation by suggesting in her opinion it’s time for a UBI.

“I would like to suggest in my opinion it’s time for a basic income,” Forget declared. “I think the PBO has demonstrated that we can afford it, I think our families, our friends, our relatives deserve it and I think if COVID has taught us nothing else, it’s taught us that the resilience of society demands a system that will allow people to meet their needs when life goes awry.”