AN INITIATIVE AS VAST AS A BASIC INCOME for poorer Canadians, sweeping as it is, can carry its own dangers. Specifically, it could prompt an over simplified view of poverty, prompting many to believe that solutions can be found through a universal program. It’s a hazard that deserves some thought.
Many Canadians view poverty as merely an economic problem – the lack of adequate finances available to a specific number of citizens and their families. We make similar judgments on issues like foreign aid and indigenous problems in Canada. But poverty is often more about societal barriers and a lack of understanding than anything else.
Someone who has a disability and is low on finances doesn’t have their mobility and acceptance problems solved by an increase in cash. A veteran struggling to survive economically and struggling with PTSD still faces almost insurmountable problems even with a healthier bank balance. A new Canadian facing language and cultural challenges will still have difficulty locating meaningful employment regardless of income. A single mother, forced to choose between childcare, caring for aging parents, and job retraining won’t find a universal answer in a Basic Income – her problems are really ones of time and human resources.
This list could go on and on. Yes, a Basic Income would ease some of the economic strain, but it doesn’t answer the problems of poor physical access in buildings for those struggling with physical challenges, unaffordable university tuition, the devastating water defilement in many First Nations communities, the unwillingness of employers to take a chance on a new Canadian, or the unjustifiable difference in wage between what a woman makes in comparison to a male counterpart.
None of these difficulties will be overcome by guaranteeing a person on the margins a certain annual income. Basic Income would never be effective against poverty unless supports are supplied over and above economic security. The tendency of oversimplifying poverty runs the danger of governments and citizens alike washing their hands of responsibility once some kind of magical formula is implemented on a national or provincial scale.
“In a perfect world,” Neal Shusterman writes in his book Unwind, “everything would be either black or white, right or wrong, and everyone would know the difference. But this isn’t a perfect world. The problem is people who think it is.”
More insightful yet is Benjamin Walker’s observation:
“People are still people, and they make their decisions based on their life experiences and their beliefs. You really can’t divorce people from their daily lives. It’s important to fight against stereotypes and oversimplifications in people who are always complex.”
When Free Trade was implemented a few decades ago, workers were promised that structural support programs would be provided, assisting with enhanced work retraining and transition into a new work environment. Hardly any of that happened and worker dislocation and unemployment have never recovered from the dislocation. A vast economic plan failed because of a lack of follow-up, a negligence of the complexities of such an initiative of universal scope.
Those promoting a Basic Income would do well to remember that the implementation of just such an initiative could be giving both governments and society itself a “get out of jail free” card. Poverty is all of our responsibility. Cutting a cheque and getting on with our daily private concerns is often how charity is practiced. True anti-poverty efforts are ultimately about social justice, not good intentions, about aligning society with the rigors of equity and not merely the free-flowing structure of capitalism or traditional politics.
The promotion of a Basic Income initiative must be accompanied by a thorough understanding that poverty itself is a complex as the people and families struggling beneath its load. To deny that complexity in favour of a simplistic solution will not only result in sloppy policy, but the presence of an entrenched poverty at the same time as society believes it has solved the problem.