Everywhere you look, basic income is back on the agenda. The Ontario government announced in February it’s looking into doing a pilot project, and Kingston made history last year as the first municipality to come out in favour of it. There are even signs the federal government will be experimenting with one soon too.
What is this thing, and why does everyone suddenly like it? A basic income or guaranteed income gives people money automatically, either as a regular, automatic payment of a fixed amount to everybody (what’s called a demogrant, similar to the old Family Allowance or baby bonus), or as a negative income tax, similar to a tax return, but enough to live on, for people with low incomes.
Basic income is explicitly supposed to replace other targeted income support programs. The key to its appeal, in fact, is that it replaces an uneven patchwork of programs benefiting particular groups (the elderly, people with disabilities, the unemployed), for which massive administrative apparatuses police eligibility, with one program that just pays people money.
The adage that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, is good to keep in mind when examining policies that are purely conjectural.
Under a true basic income model, the welfare state would no longer control recipients’ access to funds. So although the amount of money paid out would be enormous, it would in some sense be revenue-neutral, because the administration costs would be minimal.
It’s never been tried, though, so no one really knows. The adage that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, is good to keep in mind when examining policies that are purely conjectural.
It’s possible that basic income is the elusive, magical social policy unicorn that will overcome right/left tensions over income and inequality that have defined politics in the 20th century. But basic income might also be a Trojan Horse, though what’s inside it is a bit unclear.
A big part of the reason that basic income is on the agenda now is that capitalism is doing an increasingly terrible job of giving everyone a job. The growth of precarious work, especially in formerly respected professional fields, has undermined the belief that income should be a reward for a successful job search.
Even business groups are advising young people in particular to spend some time working for free at the start of their careers. For that advice to be honest, it has to be coupled with some sort of practical scheme for ensuring people can decide how to spend their time without worrying about paying rent and buying groceries.
But the discussions of how basic income would be introduced have a surreal quality, a disconnect from a political culture in which the slightest step outside the norm, however necessary from a purely technical viewpoint, is greeted as heresy. (Two words: climate change.)
For example, the discussion of basic income has clear gendered dimensions. Women do more unpaid work than men, and statistically suffer in the job market. Would women benefit from everyone getting a cheque? Yes, undeniably, in a sense.
But many good jobs women currently have are tied to the bureaucracy of care: social workers, administrative clerks, and front line service providers of all kinds are overwhelmingly female.
For basic income to work, for women currently working without an income to get money, without massively increasing expenditures, a lot of those jobs would have to be eliminated. More women than men would be ejected from paid work. That should give us pause.
There’s an ideological dimension to the basic income discussion, and it’s a fascinatingly maddening one.
As a social program without bureaucracy, basic income is greeted by policy wonks on both the left and the right as a magical thing. For the right, it means the truly needy get the money they need to live without the state having to employ a veritable army of clerks. It means a much leaner government, and a lighter tax burden.
As a mythical beast, it can be all things to all people, but in practice it will at most satisfy one set of fantasies.
For the left, it means the state can redistribute income without the intrusive personal surveillance of the poor that comes with welfare. At its most ambitious and abstract, it means the end of work. People could volunteer, could care for each other, could invent and create without worrying about making money.
That fantasy, though, absolutely depends on raising taxes, not cutting them as all governments are intent on doing. It’s not possible for it to be revenue-neutral while providing more income to people who currently depend on welfare or disability payments, for example, and the many others who are currently underemployed.
Basic income can’t logically be good for both the right and the left, who have fundamentally different ideas about what income is or should be. As a mythical beast, it can be all things to all people, but in practice it will at most satisfy one set of fantasies.
It’s actually unlikely basic income would live up to anyone’s inflated expectations. But given the current balance of power between business and poor people, it’s very likely that it would be closer to the right’s dream scenario, which is to say that it would definitely eliminate a lot of good jobs and might not provide enough money for poor people to live on.
One thing we know for certain is that a pilot project won’t tell us much, because it won’t be revenue-neutral, and it won’t lead to a withering of the welfare state. The only way to know if that extravagant experiment would lead to a flowering of the human spirit or unprecedented suffering is to implement it on a provincial or federal scale.
That might happen, but more likely, advocates on all sides will be fearful enough of the risks that it won’t, and the idea will go away again.
Illustration by Brendon Mroz