Q&A

Why one group says Nova Scotia needs a minimum guaranteed income system

Basic Income Nova Scotia is urging provincial political parties to commit during the election campaign to launching a feasibility study on implementing a minimum guaranteed income system in the province.

Basic Income Nova Scotia wants province to do feasibility study on guaranteed income system

A Nova Scotia group wants the province's political parties to commit to a feasibility study on a minimum guaranteed income system. (Shutterstock)

An anti-poverty group is urging Nova Scotia's political parties to commit during the election campaign to launching a feasibility study on implementing a minimum guaranteed income system in the province.

Karen Foster is with the group Basic Income Nova Scotia. She spoke with CBC Nova Scotia's Information Morning about the group's proposal. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How is basic guaranteed income different from what we have now with social assistance?

"What we have now for social assistance is a mix of different payments people can access based on a lot of complicated eligibility requirements. Whereas basic income is conceived as more of a single payment that anyone is eligible for as long as their income falls below a certain threshold. Its aim is to reduce the stigma of accessing social assistance to make it more simple for people who need it to access it."

For an individual in Nova Scotia, what would they receive annually on social assistance now? 

"It is somewhere in the $10,000-$12,000 range, which falls well below any measure of poverty. We'd want a basic income setup in Nova Scotia to be above the low-income cut-off [LICO], which Stats Canada uses as a rough threshold to define poverty."

Foster said the cut-off varies by communities across Canada, but the LICO for Halifax in 2014 was just over $17,000 after tax for individuals, and just over $20,000 after tax for a household of two. It would be slightly lower in rural areas, she said.

"Still, a LICO is far below what most people would consider a healthy, adequate income. It's just enough to meet basic food, shelter and clothing needs. Social assistance, no matter how you slice it, doesn't get people up to this minimum standard." 

What would you like to see Nova Scotia do? Do you want us to mirror the pilot project now underway in Ontario?

Karen Foster is with the group Basic Income Nova Scotia. (Karen Foster)

"We're not looking for a pilot study, per se. There have been pilot studies of basic income done all over the world already. Those studies are usually about testing whether people will continue to work in paid employment, because whenever we talk about giving people money the concern is there will be no incentive to work and everyone will just lay around collecting free money. I've seen nothing that suggests the work disincentives associated with basic income are anything to worry about. 

"We think it's reasonable for the Nova Scotia government to conduct a feasibility study. And that would look into questions like, if we launched a basic income in Nova Scotia how would we fund it? What would happen to other social assistance payments? Because there are certain ones that can be lumped together and can largely finance a basic income on their own, but there are others that serve important separate functions, such as disability payments, that should not be eliminated as a result of a basic income."

Have you presented this to political parties for consideration in the election? 

"We've written a letter to each of the provincial parties, asking them to commit to a feasibility study in their platforms. We don't have any responses yet. We have met with politicians at various levels of government over the last few years, and generally we get a positive reception.

"We get widespread acknowledgement that the current system of social assistance is not lifting anyone out of poverty. And the people who work in the delivery of those programs don't generally feel like they're doing a good job and they're not really helping people under the structure that we have in place.

"What we face, usually, are questions about how the province can afford basic income, what's it going to do to people's incentive to work, and how could it be possible — given we already have a system in place that ensures nobody has zero dollars, but relies on this mix of federal and provincial payments."

Is this about getting more money into the hands of people who need it, or is it about streamlining these programs to make it easier for people to access this assistance?

"It's primarily about lifting people out of poverty. The streamlining effects are potentially a bonus, but it's a double-edge sword. With any kind of social program or policy change, it does raise questions about what happens to the people who currently work to deliver social assistance.

"The best-case scenario would be that people who work in social assistance delivery now are freed up to do the job that many want to do, which is to actually help people on an individualized basis in getting their lives back on track. As opposed to looking for reasons to not give people money, which I think is the position a lot of social assistance delivery personnel find themselves in today." 

With files from Information Morning.