Basic income: New life for an old idea

Basic income, which would guarantee a certain amount of money to a country's citizens regardless of their employment status, is having a moment in the sun in Canada.

A combination of economic uncertainty and political possibility is giving new life to an old policy idea

Manitoba's minimum wage will increase by 30 cents on Oct. 1. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

In Ottawa, a federal MP is pushing for government research on the subject.

Ontario's provincial budget announced a pilot program to try it out. In Quebec, a cabinet minister has been assigned to study the topic.

The mayors of Calgary and Edmonton are both on board. And the Manitoba Liberals are promising their own trial if they win the April 19 provincial election.

Basic income is capturing political imaginations in Canada.

Also known as guaranteed minimum income, universal income, guaranteed annual income, or a negative income tax, basic income is a social policy that would supplant various welfare programs by providing a baseline amount of money to all citizens, regardless of whether they work or meet a means test.

I think part of it is the need to set up social programs for a very different kind of labour force than existed in the past.- Evelyn Forget, professor, University of Manitoba

The idea is far from new, and it has even been tried in Canada before, in the town of Dauphin, Man., during the 1970s. Google Trends, which tracks the volume of inquiries on the Google search engine, shows an increased number of searches for "basic income" and related terms in the past three years — and especially in recent months.

A world without guarantees

Evelyn Forget, a professor with the department of community health services at the University of Manitoba who researched the Dauphin experiment, recently testified before federal pre-budget hearings on the topic of basic income. 

She says the idea's resurgent popularity may have to do with an uncertain global economy.

"I think we've seen a huge increase in precarious employment," says Forget. "Looking forward, I think people are concerned about increasing mechanization of jobs … I think part of it is the need to set up social programs for a very different kind of labour force than existed in the past."

Dissatisfaction with the way current welfare programs are administered might also be leading to renewed interest in basic income, says Forget.

"The nice thing about a guaranteed income is … it offers to low-income families the same kind of privacy that the rest of us take for granted when we fill out our income tax or interact with the system in one way or another."

Advocates of a basic income say it could be more effective at addressing poverty than current welfare programs. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Former senator Hugh Segal says he has been interested in basic income since 1969, when he heard about the idea at a Conservative Party policy conference.

He agrees that the idea has been resurgent in the public consciousness lately, citing "the need to do something different and better" than current poverty-reduction efforts, which he describes as "freezing people in poverty, not liberating them from poverty."

Primarily, Segal believes a renewed understanding of demographics is behind the new rise of basic income.

"People are looking at the various demographic and other pressures on the healthcare system," says Segal, now master at Massey College in Toronto. "Dealing with poverty is one way to take some of the pressures off that system."

​New government, new policies

A new government might be another reason that people are willing to entertain the basic income idea. At the party's 2014 policy convention, the federal Liberal Party adopted a resolution to create a basic annual income. Liberal-appointed Senator Art Eggleton recently put forward a motion calling on the federal government to sponsor a pilot project to study the idea.

"Given the past federal election, you see a completely different mood in Canada now," says Basic Income Canada Network chair Sheila Regehr, whose organization advocates for a basic income.

"I think a lot of people have been interested, but lying low — and it's just bubbling up now, all over."

Regehr says an increasing number of people have declared their support for basic income via the Basic Income Canada Network website recently. She's also seen more interest from potential volunteers.

Not just politicos

It's not just politicians and policy wonks who are interested in basic income. The idea has also found traction among the tech crowd, in Silicon Valley as well as closer to Canada.

Paul Vallée is the founder and CEO of Ottawa-based Pythian, an IT management firm. He also sits on the board of the Basic Income Canada Network, and advocates for the policy. He says his peers in the tech world are particularly keen on basic income.

"Anybody who's involved in computer science or information technology at all is essentially in the business of replacing people with software," says Vallée. "I want to feel like my work is building towards a future vision for our society that is positive and constructive."

Charles Lammam, director of fiscal policy at the Fraser Institute, co-authored a paper highlighting some of the practical challenges of implementing a basic income program. Lammam says the idea of basic income appeals to players across the political spectrum. But, he warns, that may be because it's still a nebulous idea — so it's easy for thinkers of all political stripes to imagine the program structured in a way they like.

"Part of the reason for why there is agreement is that people don't spend too much time going into the details of what they mean."