Cash for life: guaranteed annual income gaining steam in Canada

Daily Brew

[Polymer bank notes are shown during a news conference at the Bank of Canada in Ottawa on April 30, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick]

Politicians in municipal, provincial and federal governments are discussing the idea of a guaranteed basic income — a bold concept that has the endorsement of folks from across all party lines.

A majority of councillors in the Niagara region of Ontario voted last week to support a motion asking the provincial and federal governments to develop a guaranteed basic income (GBI). Kingston city councillors passed a similar motion last month. Also, Liberal Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard appointed a cabinet committee last month on the creation of a GBI for that province.

Canada’s federal minister responsible for poverty has expressed interest in the idea of a guaranteed basic income. The idea has merit as a government policy, after the implementation of immediate reforms the Liberals promised while campaigning, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Jean-Yves Duclos told the Globe and Mail.

Duclos and Couillard were not immediately available for comment.

Part of the minister’s mandate is to combine various federal payments to parents into a single payment, the Canada Child Benefit, and to increase the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors. Both initiatives illustrate how Canada already has some forms of a guaranteed basic income in place. 

In a system with a guaranteed basic income, tax dollars are used to top up the income of every Canadian, with everyone receiving a payment that guarantees that each household has at least a minimum income. As a result, reliance on existing social services would be reduced or potentially replaced, supporters say. Detractors argue that the GBI would not actually save money because it would create disincentives to work, or that a solution that provides money to all citizens regardless of existing income will not actually reduce inequalities.

There are many different forms that GBI can take, and Canada already has some programs that fit within the category: employment insurance or social security, for example.

Other more ambitious experiments with GBI have been tried in this country in the past. In the late 1970s the residents of Dauphin, Man., participated in a program dubbed Mincome that provided a guaranteed minimum income for all its residents. While a final report on the project was never completed, it lifted 1,000 families out of poverty before it was cancelled in 1979.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May has supported the idea of a guaranteed basic income in the past, and included it as part of the party platform for the most recent election. And the Liberals included the creation of a “basic annual income” among its policy resolutions, but it wasn’t part of the official party platform during the federal election. Some fiscal conservatives, like former Tory senator Hugh Segal, also support the idea as a means to reduce or eliminate existing social programs.

Examples can also be found in other countries. In Alaska, all citizens receive a portion of revenue earned from oil, for example. This summer Switzerland is set to be the first country in the world to vote on providing a guaranteed national income for all residents. Finland is working on a proposal for a tax-free income supplement for all citizens, in part to fight high unemployment. And a Dutch city is undertaking an experiment in GBI that’s inspired in part by the earlier one in Dauphin.

In Canada, pilot projects have been suggested by Segal and Conference Board of Canada chief economist Glen Hodgson. And last August, 194 Canadian physicians signed a letter in support of a GBI in Ontario, saying that it would reduce the poor health outcomes tied to poverty.