The following article is part of our Basic Income Section in this issue of Inroads Journal, and is a rebuttal to John Richards’ Basic Income Provides Dubious Benefit at a High Cost.
We thank Professor Richards for his response to our article. His arguments against basic income conform rather neatly to Hirschman’s jeopardy, futility and perversity framework, outlined at the beginning of our original article. Moreover, Professor Richards does not seriously engage with the issues we raised. We are reminded of the Indian parable of the six blind sages who couldn’t agree on the nature of an elephant because each of the six was feeling a different part of the massive animal. A snake. A fan. A tree. A wall. A spear. A rope. What is an elephant? What is basic income?
Professor Richards explains that his thinking is informed by the recently released 500-page final report of the B.C. Expert Panel on Basic Income. Though the members of the B.C. Expert Panel say they “consulted widely” with “a variety of organizations representing different groups in society,” their report gives no indication that they themselves met with or spoke to anyone living on low incomes.
Not single women around age 60, living on social assistance or making do with multiple part-time jobs, who are so despairing and hopeless about their futures that they think about suicide as a way out. Not the people with disabilities living on wildly inadequate income assistance who apply for medical assistance in dying. Not the young people working low-wage jobs at fast food restaurants who can’t afford to take a sick day because they won’t be able to make rent. Not the low-income urban Indigenous people with addictions who started life with the legacies of colonial violence embedded in their biology through epigenetics and who get knocked down by racism at every turn. Nor does it appear that Professor Richards spoke with any of the low-income people, often with complicated lives, who might benefit from basic income. Among those involved in social policy reform towards poverty elimination, it is well accepted that the voices and stories of those living on low incomes can help us understand the problems in our current system and the consequences of proposed reforms.
Professor Richards endorses the B.C. Expert Panel’s emphasis on incrementalism. However, the problem with incremental social policy change is that is does nothing to disrupt or overturn the many problematic assumptions built into our current income (in)security system. As Professor Richards points out, the current welfare state is built on a particular ideological family form: a middle-class, heterosexual, nuclear family, with an able-bodied primary breadwinner who is the husband and dad and a stay-at-home wife and mother. Critics have long pointed out that the many people whose lives do not fit this model are not well served by the current system. It was conceived in, and designed for, a different century.
The B.C. panel’s report opens with high-minded ideals about treating one another “as equals deserving of our respect.” But in upholding the major structures of the current social assistance framework, they ignore that it is built on 19th-century ideas that low-income people are somehow different from the rest of us. They are lazy; we are not. They deserve their fate; we worked hard for what we have. They are morally degenerate; we are morally upright. They are stupid; we are smart. They are deficient; we know what they need. This division into “us” and “them” is notable in Richards’s extended quote from the B.C. panel’s report about reciprocity. There are “those who are beneficiaries” of basic income, and there are “those who are mainly paying to fund the supports.”
We don’t think this way about medicare, because we have all used it and can imagine using it again. Is it that hard to imagine that the beneficiaries of a basic income might also, at other times, be those helping to pay the bill? If we believe that low-income people are somehow different, we overlook the roles of chance, luck and contingency in who we are and where we end up in life. Moreover, as noted feminist theorist Kathi Weeks points out, “The fear that there will be free riders who receive a basic income is laughable given the truly massive levels of free riding on unremunerated labour, stolen property, public infrastructures, and privatised commons for which capital is given a free pass.”1
We don’t need basic income per se to end poverty in Canada. If we collectively considered it unjust and immoral that anyone live in poverty in this country, if we agreed that poverty wastes human lives and human potential, we could just eliminate it with livable wages, adequate social assistance, various income supports and public investments in housing, public transit and more. But we don’t, even though we know that investments in reducing poverty provide tremendous returns, individually and collectively. We prefer to maintain the illusion that some are deserving of adequate income and others are not. In his classic 1971 article, Herbert J. Gans described 13 social, economic and political functions of poverty that serve and benefit the nonpoor.2 Until we acknowledge and address the multiple ways that the nonpoor profit from poverty and dismantle our stereotypes about the poor, tinkering with the existing system through incremental reforms cannot move us toward “the more just society” to which the B.C. panel claims to aspire.
Finally, we are not surprised that most Canadians are not willing to pay more taxes to support basic income. Given the stagnation of wages for those in the bottom income distributions and the significant increases in income inequality, likely worsened by the pandemic, we don’t blame them. Nor do we expect “most” Canadians to pay. Following the Basic Income Canada Network’s “policy options” paper for financing basic income,3 we propose that basic income be implemented through progressive tax reform, such that all those in the lower half of the income distribution would benefit from basic income and those who are most able to pay would do so. This would reverse decades of tax breaks for the wealthiest and put us on a path to a more equitable income distribution.
Click to read the original article on the case for Basic Income, Work, Idleness and Basic Income, and the rebuttal to the article above, John Richards Responds. And while you’re here, check out the rest of the Basic Income Section in this issue of Inroads Journal!
Elaine Power is a professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Her research focuses on poverty, food insecurity and health. Jamie Swift is a writer based in Kingston and the author of a dozen books, including The Vimy Trap (2017) with Ian McKay. Together they have written The Case for Basic Income: Freedom, Security, Justice, published in May by Between the Lines.
1 Kathi Weeks, “Anti/Postwork Feminist Politics and A Case for Basic Income,” triple C: communication, capitalism & critique, Vol. 18, No. 2 (2020), p. 577.
2 Herbert J. Gans, “The Uses of Poverty: The Poor Pay All,” Social Policy, July/August 1971, pp. 20–24.
3 Chandra Pasma and Sheila Regehr, Basic Income: Some Policy Options for Canada (Toronto: Basic Income Canada Network, 2019).