It all sounded to good to be true, and it likely is.  A column this week in the Atlantic held the captivated heading, “How To Cut Poverty Rate in Half (It’s Easy).”  If only.

The piece proposes something like a Guaranteed Annual Income (GAI), or Basic Income (BI), for those living in poverty.  Other nations have explored such possibilities and many in Canada are holding it out as a new way to defeat poverty.  I agree and support the initiative, but have come to see that it is likely the only way ahead due to a lack of imagination and resolve in this country.

In 1992, I was asked to address some members of the Mulroney cabinet on a paper I had written regarding food security in Canada.  At that point there was some serious exploration as to the possibility of a Basic Income, appropriately led by Mulroney’s Chief of Staff, Hugh Segal.  In his discussion with me, he was articulate, impassioned and a firm believer in the right of all Canadians to have a basic quality of life.  Later, he was appointed to the Senate by Paul Martin and continued to be an effective voice on the initiative.  He was one of the good public servants and was respected across the board.  He continues to talk about it today, except that all the attention is on some of his peers with names like Duffy, Wallin, Harb and Brazeau.  It’s a shame because we need to hear his voice.

In 2010, writer Erin Anderssen wrote a piece in the Globe and Mail on the BI, and it rightfully gathered a large following.  She goes into the effect of such initiatives in other nations and quotes Segal.  It’s an impressive piece that you can read here.

I have slowly come to the conclusion that this will be the only way ahead if we are to take a serious bite out of poverty in the future.  But it does represent a failure across many sectors.  Reducing poverty is never as easy as the Atlantic piece claims.  Its contributing factors are multi-layered, complex, and represent a failure of public policy on numerous levels.  It will remain impossible to build an equitable social policy out of a deeply flawed financial model and a crippled form of politics.  We learned just yesterday that 95% of any new income generated in Canada from 2009-2012 went to the top 1%.  If that remains the backdrop for any new social initiative, it will only be because there is no longer the will or resources to deal with our deeper issues of injustice.  The poor will become a permanent class merely because we never developed the levers necessary to seek for a broader kind of national justice – socially, economically, culturally, or even legally.

I want to explore more on this in the next post, but for now it is important to admit that we are not losing the war on poverty because we quit, but because we have slowly retreated from our own collective possibilities.  Confucius was poignant on this point: “In a country well-governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of.  In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.”  President Obama’s chair of his Council of Economic Advisers, Alan Krueger, was more modern in his conclusion:

In considering reasons for the growing wage gap between the top and everyone else, economists have tended to shy away from considerations of fairness and instead focus on market forces, mainly technological change and globalization.  But given the compelling evidence that considerations of fairness matters, I would argue that we need to devote more attention to the erosion of the norms, institutions and practices that maintain fairness in the job market.  We also need to focus on the policies that can lead to a more widely-shared – and stronger – economic growth.”

There we have it: planned poverty.  We cannot hope to decisively defeat poverty by providing a basic income to poor families and individuals while at the same time promoting an economic and financial system that refuses to effectively distribute wealth.  In his presidential bid, Mitt Romney termed this as, “taking it from the job creators to give it to the freeloaders.”  He got caught and he was wrong.  The great problem is not how the wealth is being distributed, but how it isn’t being equitably distributed at all.  In fact, every effort and serious bucks go into the safeguarding of all that wealth at the top.

People in poverty aren’t automatons heading to a bank machine.  They have disabilities, mental health issues, chronic sickness in their families, have lost employment, can’t afford retraining or childcare, are immigrants unable to crack the financial culture barrier, are elderly on fixed pensions, are aboriginals with little hope of higher education, women mired in homelessness and abuse, children with unemployed parents, people with no housing, and a sector with no hope.  This is the face of modern poverty, and we have lost the courage and imagination to assist them where they live.  Out of options, and increasingly claiming we are out of money for expensive social and medical programs, we must see a Basic Income for what has sadly become: a measure that has only become needed because we lost the will to defend and strengthen our social contract with one another. It will be better than what we have, but so much short of what we once dreamed.