Basic Income: Let's Continue the Conversation

22 August 2017

The idea of a Basic Income or a Guaranteed Annual Income has been getting a lot of attention in recent years.  In July of 2016 Vibrant Communities hosted a community conversation about Basic Income.    However, it was more than a year before this event that I had first heard of the notion.  The idea that our current income support system could be replaced by a universal basic income was intriguing!

Before we continue this conversation about basic income I must tell you a little bit about my time as a front-line worker, and how it has shaped the person I am today.  When I was a front-line worker I would have liked to say that I spent the majority of my time helping people, however looking back this was not always the case.  The truth is, I spent most my time as the gatekeeper of scarce resources.  At the homeless shelter, I worked at I was tasked with enforcing the rules.  Ensuring each person had their share of the meals, administering hygiene items, and transit tickets.  During my years as a case manager for a housing program I spent countless hours answering calls from people who needed transit tickets, food gift cards, and food hampers.  I remember I had to say no more often than I cared to.

When I first decided I wanted to be a Social Worker I guess I imagined I would be helping people to turn their lives around through education, job training or counseling, but what I discovered when I was on the ground running was that it wasn’t the people who needed “fixing,” but rather it was our social systems that needed the “fixing.”  How could people be expected to benefit from any education or training if they were not receiving a minimum income to meet their basic needs?  Having already asked myself this question many times, when a colleague started a discussion about a Universal Basic Income I immediately became an advocate, and began doing some of my own research on successful pilot projects.  What I discovered was that when policy makers place conditions on a cash transfer it becomes very costly and time consuming to administer (Slater, 2011).  The added costs are justified if they can achieve the intended impact whether it be positive health outcomes, increased school attendance or improved food security, policy makers and funders made the assumption that conditions would need to be placed in order to get the desired outcome.  As it turns out there isn’t any evidence to support that assumption, and a growing body of evidence that suggests cash transfers without conditions can produce the same positive results.

Evelyn Forget (2011) wrote an article on Canada’s first Basic Income pilot project that occurred in rural Manitoba.  The project took place in 1973 and demonstrated several positive outcomes namely a decrease in hospitalization, a decrease in mental health related physician visits, and an increase in high school graduations.

In 2016, another unconditional cash transfer pilot project took place in Manitoba.  Researchers report on the positive impacts a monthly cash transfer has on just over 16,000 pregnant women.  Although the monthly benefit was intended to produce positive birth outcomes the monthly benefit came without conditions.  At the end of the 7-year pilot project, research authors Brownell et al (2016) report that the receipt of the benefit was associated with several positive impacts such as reductions in “low birth rate, preterm births, as well as an increase in breastfeeding initiation” (Brownell et al, 2010, p. 5).  Also, worth noting the authors provide some insightful final thoughts regarding the outcomes of this unconditional cash grant.  “As a society, we tend to assume that poor people cannot be trusted to make good choices, however there is a growing body of evidence that positive child outcomes are associated with an increase in family income” (Brownell et al, p. 6).

Perhaps what I like the most about these pilot projects is that with an increase in income participants were given more choice.  Giving people more choice is part of a larger conversation, and I think if we truly intend to reduce poverty under the framework of human rights and social justice we need to focus on restoring dignity.  Being poor carries a social stigma, and implementing a basic income for all would restore dignity for a lot of people.  I hope we continue this conversation of a Basic Income, and I look forward to meeting everyone during community engagement events.

P.S. Please join Vibrant Communities Calgary and Basic Income Calgary on September 6, 2017 from 6:30 – 9:00 p.m. for an Enough for All Community Conversation where we will be taking about ‘Basic Income through the lens of food insecurity‘.


Brownell, M.D., Chartier, M.J., Nickel, N.C., Chateau, D., Martens, P.J., Sarker, J.,

Burland, E., Jutte, D.P., Taylor, C., Santos, R.G., Katz, A. (2016). Unconditional

prenatal income supplement and birth outcomes. Pediatrics, 137(6).

Forget, L. E. (2011). The town with no poverty: The health effects of a Canadian guaranteed annual income field experiment. Canadian Public Policy. 37(3).  Retrieved from

Slater, R. (2011). Cash transfers, social protection and poverty reduction. International

Journal of Social Welfare, 20, 250–259.