Winnipeg business group pushes province to look at guaranteed income

Winnipeg's largest business organization wants the province to further study guaranteed minimum income as a way to drive down Manitoba's poverty levels.

Activist David Northcott calls chamber's endorsement of minimum income 'delightful'

The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce is urging the province to study the idea of a guaranteed minimum income. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Winnipeg's largest business organization wants the province to further study guaranteed minimum income as a way to drive down Manitoba's poverty levels.

The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce released a poverty reduction strategy Wednesday, saying the province should conduct a new five-year minimum income pilot project like the one done in Dauphin, Man., in the 1970s.

"Minimum income supports the concept that all work has value, including non-paid work," the strategy says.

"People have been taking on those roles without pay and some may think their work doesn't have or create any value. Yet without those volunteers and homemakers, our society would suffer greatly."

The Mincome experiment

​The idea of a basic income that guarantees everyone has enough money to meet basic needs, regardless of work status, has gained traction across all sides of the political spectrum.

Proponents on the left say it represents an opportunity for greater redistribution of wealth, while those on the right believe it would cut back on red tape and see more money spent in local communities.

In Dauphin and Winnipeg, an experiment dubbed "Mincome" ran from 1974 to 1979. About 1,000 families received monthly cheques under the $17-million project; the province picked up about 25 per cent of the tab.

Researchers found the project improved the overall health of residents.

However, the experiment was stopped over concerns people who received a basic universal income would no longer want to work and because of the cost, said Gregory Mason, associate professor of economics at the University of Manitoba.

University of Manitoba economics professor Gregory Mason says there are many questions to answer before implementing guaranteed minimum income. (Warren Kay/CBC)

"The fear was that people would basically sit at home, listen to the Rolling Stones and smoke dope," said Mason, who conducted substantial research into the 1970s Mincome experiment.

While that fear didn't materialize, the program isn't as simple as handing out money, Mason said.

"One of the concerns people have is we're really dismantling a very substantial system, but [guaranteed minimum income] is also an extraordinarily expensive system to run, so you have to find the money somewhere."

Whether all people would use it to support themselves and their dependents, as intended, is another question, said Mason. If they fail to use the money responsibly and other social service programs have been dismantled, that leaves those people without support.

"I would like to point out over the last 10 years, Canada has done progressively better on poverty," Mason said.

The main growth in support behind the idea now is as a way to help "cure" income inequality, he said.

David Northcott says lifting people closer or to the poverty line would allow them to more easily ascend the income ladder. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

Poverty reduction activist and former Winnipeg Harvest executive director David Northcott said he believes the arguments against guaranteed minimum income are unfounded.

"We already have a basic income model in Canada," Northcott said. "It's called the Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security. And when that one got strengthened, the poverty rate amongst seniors dropped significantly."

Money would shift out of other areas such as health care and the current welfare system to help fund the program, he said.

The only thing missing is hard data on what the savings would be and how much it would cost, although the figure of $41 billion annually has been floated, Northcott said.

"Overall, the sense is there would be savings."

He doesn't believe people would refuse to work. Instead, it would give people the wiggle room to move up and be an active part of society, he said.

"If you can pay for rent, you can pay for food.… Then the next step of 'How do we get out of the [poverty] trap of being on the bottom end of things' is a lot easier."

Seeing the chamber of commerce champion this idea is welcome, said Northcott.

"It's delightful to see this coming from the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce.… To have them have this conversation and put it on the table is really inspiring."

Targeted approach

​Chamber president Lorne Remillard said a guaranteed minimum income "would be a more targeted approach to help Canadians make ends meet" rather than drastically raising the minimum wage, which is happening in other provinces.

Other provinces are also conducting guaranteed minimum income experiments, including one in Ontario that's similar to Manitoba's 1970s Mincome.

Mason, who helped design Ontario's pilot project, said he's not sure if they will see results similar to those in Manitoba.

"These are formidably difficult programs to put together, and the cost of them … is extraordinarily high," because no programs are being replaced by the pilot project.

We want to hear from all Manitobans — not just the chamber of commerce, but people with lived experiences in poverty too.- Families Minister Scott Fielding

Savings from other programs may offset the estimated cost of $41 billion for a national program, said Mason.

"If it gets rid of social assistance, if it gets rid of some of its other support measures," Canada could likely afford the cost, said Mason.

"But there's a lot of vested interest in preserving those social measures."

The chamber also outlined other strategies to reduce poverty, including a government focused on creating well-paying jobs, enhancing education, offering breakfast and lunch programs, and increasing bursaries for low-income families, targeted heath supports and services for those living in poverty, and greater investment in low-income, stable housing.

Poverty reduction plan

On Wednesday, provincial Families Minister Scott Fielding said the chamber of commerce put forward a lot of interesting ideas, which will be used to help the government create their poverty reduction plan.

"We agree with a lot of what the chamber of commerce is saying but to fair, the consultation process is ongoing, and we want to hear from all Manitobans — not just the chamber of commerce, but people with lived experiences in poverty too. That's really important," Fielding said.

He said those consultations have included discussion with around 1,500 people across the province. 

One area where Fielding said the chamber and the government agree is on the importance of job creation.

"We think that also providing some tax relief," is important, he said.

"We've been able to increase the basic personal exemption, where close to 31,000 people will not have to pay taxes at all, and those are the most low-income individuals," he said.

NDP MLA Bernadette Smith criticized the government for having no poverty reduction plan in place two years into its mandate. She said her party and the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce agree on the importance of creating good jobs for Manitobans. 

"We need this government to put together a plan and really ensure that people aren't living in poverty, and that those jobs are available for Manitobans that want to have jobs," she said.

With files from Cameron MacLean