E4A in Action

Reflecting on Basic Income Through the Lens of Poverty Reduction

10 November 2020

Introduction

We see Basic Income as a viable alternative to our current income support programs. In our work with Basic Income Calgary and Basic Income Alberta we talk about a principles-based basic income. BIC and BIA goals align with Enough for All and the growing national movement for a basic income guarantee.

This approach is centred on a basic income guarantee program that would create a regular, predictable income, universally and unconditionally available to all who need it, and sufficient to provide for a decent life style and enable full participation in the community.

Problems

Addressing the problem, not the cause

Front-line workers in the fight against poverty unfortunately spend a great deal of their time as gatekeepers to scarce resources. Homeless shelter workers must enforce strict rules, ensuring that each person has enough to eat, enough hygiene items, and enough transit tickets to make it through the day. Case managers at housing programs spend countless hours answering calls from people who need just the same: transit tickets, gift cards, and food hampers. And more often than they’d like, these workers often have to turn people away. Education, training, food, and supplies for struggling Calgarians are all well and good, but how can people take advantage of these programs without receiving a minimum income to meet their basic needs such as rent or transportation?

Social services often come with stipulations. High and low income thresholds abound, and personal identification is often required in order to qualify for basic services. These stipulations are rooted in a societal tendency to treat people as needing fixing. If someone doesn’t meet a certain criteria, then they aren’t deserving of basic human dignity. In reality, it’s not people who are in need of fixing, but instead our societal structures.

Food versus money

In a country like Canada, where the only legislation to address food insecurity in over thirty years has been to support donations to food banks, the idea that a basic income guarantee could do more to ameliorate the issue than food-based solutions might sound unintuitive, even strange. But as unbelievable as the truth may sound, the fact is that no study in Canada has shown that any food-based program reduces household food insecurity rates. Not one.

For those of us who have unquestioningly accepted the food bank model as the best--perhaps even the only--way to impact the lives of the food insecure, this is a hard statistic to come to terms with. Indeed, the Director of Policy and Research for Food Banks Canada has himself stated that “income, low income, is at the root of food insecurity, root of hunger, [and] root of food bank use.” Food banks are currently a necessity in our culture, not because they work in the long-term, but because our society has made them a necessity. Our refusal to acknowledge that basic income might be a possible solution has resulted in us settling for a shadow of basic income in the form of society’s run-off, giving the poor what we’ve decided they deserve: table scraps.

Sprawl Calgary provides some interesting statistics:

Statistics

98,000

food hampers distributed by the Calgary Food Bank in 2019

30%

of the Calgary Food Bank’s clients had employment income

518,600

Albertans were food insecure between 2017 and 2018. That’s 12% of Alberta’s population

Solutions

Changing a culture of distrust with facts

When discussing basic income, a common concern is that stringent conditions ought to be placed on income receipt in order to come to the desired outcome of positive health changes, increased school attendance or improved food security. But as it turns out, there isn’t any evidence to support this assumption, and a growing body of evidence suggests that simple cash transfers without conditions can produce the same positive results without the bureaucratic overhead.

Giving people more choice is part of a larger conversation, and if we truly intend to reduce poverty under the framework of human rights and social justice, we need to focus on restoring dignity.

Myths & Reality

How to Help