The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: poverty

Basic Income: Go Deep or Go Home

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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.

Basic Income and Transforming a Generation

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THE CONCEPT OF A BASIC INCOME ISN’T ONE simple construct but a wide range of ideas of which all or some could end up in a final policy proposal. Even its name isn’t a sure thing. In recent years it has been labeled a Guaranteed Annual Income, a Guaranteed Income Supplement, Basic Income Guarantee, a Social Wage, or even a Citizen’s Dividend.

While many have fought for such an initiative for various reasons, it has been primarily its potential for eliminating poverty that has become the focus for recent Basic Income activity. The ability to provide low-income Canadians with a guaranteed level of funding, proponents say, would eliminate the need for the heavy programming and bureaucratic expenses related to administering initiatives to help the needy. Some maintain that the sheer savings on programming alone would be sufficient to get Canadians out of poverty. There is much debate on this at present, but the possibility of lifting so many Canadians to a secure economic level through one comprehensive initiative has proved remarkably appealing.

Proponents from the Left say it will eradicate poverty; those from the Right maintain it will save governments money. Yet the potential of a Basic Income is intriguing in other ways perhaps far more compelling. Since Canada’s founding a woman’s economic status has been directly linked to that of her father or her spouse. As philosopher Carole Pateman writes: “A basic income would, for the first time, provide women with modest life-long independence and security.” For new Canadians the possibilities of starting from a secure economic base would provide them great potential for settling in a community, accessing educational opportunities, and provide them some status.

Experimentation with Basic Income initiatives have been going on around the world in places like Germany, Brazil, France, Britain, and even Mexico and Columbia. And it’s happening in all the places for the same reason that it’s gaining traction in Canada: poverty is systemic, growing, and won’t go away. In tomorrow’s post we’ll deal with the negative implications of what it all means, but for the present support for a Basic Income is compelling. Outside of changing the entire financial order, transforming the flow of funds between political jurisdictions, or permitting Canadians cities and communities to have more powers of taxation, it would be challenging to find another initiative so all-encompassing and comprehensive as a Basic Income initiative.

By way of possibilities, consider what took place in the appointing of the new federal cabinet yesterday in Ottawa. Advocates have been saying for decades that we should be reaching gender equality by now in our politics, but the sheer dominance of the male-dominated political order was content to eke its way towards such a target over the course of many years. Justin Trudeau’s appointment of a 50-50 cabinet showed just how inured we had become to political and gender renewal. In a welcome instant he turned the possibilities of politics on its head.

As we tinker increasingly with inter-generational poverty, what is to keep us from alleviating it in one broad sweep of creativity, legislation, and civil society support? Nothing, except our own lack of resolve and the paltriness of our expectations. Trudeau’s cabinet selection reminds us that history is of little use to us if can’t transcend its barriers to find a better place. Crippling poverty can be vanquished but only if we resolve within ourselves to finally do it. In such a setting, the Basic Income might be the way forward.

Basic Income: An Idea With a History

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ARTIST ANDY WARHOL OFTEN EXHIBITED FASCINATING INSIGHTS into the human condition that, at times, became colloquialisms. At one point he noted, “They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” And that is true. Yet there are those occasions when time itself can be of assistance.

Take the concept of a basic income as a measure of that truth. Yesterday we noted how the idea of some kind of baseline income could be of great help to the marginalized. Many progressives are shocked when they discover that libertarian economist Milton Friedman threw his support behind early efforts of what was then called a “Guaranteed Annual Income,” but which he preferred to label a “negative income tax.” From across the political and economic spectrums came support. Left-learning economists like James Tobin and John Kenneth Galbraith got behind Friedman.

It was Martin Luther King Jr. a few years previous who brought the basic income concept to more popular attention in his book Where to Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

“I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective – the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”

Even in 1972, as George McGovern challenged Richard Nixon for the presidency, one of his key proposals was the implementation of a more generous basic income. Nixon won and the initiative was lost, at least for a time.

It seems to have been around forever, but it is only in recent years in Canada that it has come to the fore as the nation deals with the complexity and incessant growth of poverty itself. Former senator and Mulroney Chief of Staff Hugh Segal has pushed the concept for two decades, acquiring along the way some key support. In frustrating fashion, however, it languished interminably in that spot between good intentions and decisive action.

The Great Recession of just a few years ago created significant fallout in everything from shrinking government resources and unemployment to general distemper among the citizenry. Poverty itself was quickly being vaulted to the front of the line when it came to policy matters. People began talking about the urgent need for a housing strategy for the homeless and more effective poverty reduction initiatives in Canadian communities. Increased talk moved through political circles about other nations that had practiced various forms of basic income for decades and there was an openness to explore such options within the Canadian context.

And now it seems that time itself has created a ready audience for the concept of a basic income in Canada itself. It was slow in coming, but now that it has arrived, Warhol’s observation that things won’t change unless we change them ourselves seems achievable. Canadians themselves are increasingly impatient over the poverty situation in the nation, and especially the growing gap between the rich and poor. The idea of a basic income is emerging again, only this time to a more willing audience. Breaking ground and instilling a willingness to move forward on the concept may have taken decades, but those years weren’t wasted or lost. They accomplished their work and prepared us for something not only innovative, but perhaps revolutionary.

Tomorrow:  Basic Income – How it Works

A Tale of Two City Mayors

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IN ALL THE RUSH AND EXCITEMENT ABOUT THE recent federal election and the ambitious agenda put forward by Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau, we tend to forget that there are already numerous examples of sweeping, at times breathtaking, agendas being put forward by some of this country’s mayors.

Naheed Nenshi (Calgary) and Don Iveson (Edmonton), have not only had enough of being neglected by the more senior political jurisdictions, they are actually setting out strong policy options whether or not Alberta or Ottawa are ready for them. Having already insisted that they would like to open discussions with their senior partners on the prospect of becoming charter cities, they are now experimenting with the idea of their respective cities becoming testing grounds for the concept of a basic income.

We’ll explore this concept in greater detail in our next post, but in its simplest form a basic income means giving every citizen a certain amount of funds to cover the various challenges they encounter in life. For years it had been broached and introduced as an innovative means whereby people of low-income can be elevated to a more secure economic level within Canadian society.

This is an idea that has been around for decades and has supporters from all sides of the political spectrum. And though it has slowly progressed in awareness, the point of this post is that two key mayors are taking on the political establishment in support of this idea, not for ideological reasons, but because they are attempting to bring relief to their marginalized citizens when the prevailing system doesn’t work – just what mayors are supposed to do.

Nenshi is just doing his job, but he is accomplishing it with daring. Speaking at the National Poverty Reduction Summit in Ottawa in May, he called for a “brave step” in fighting poverty by supporting the basic income. It is for this kind of leadership that Nenshi was awarded the World Mayor prize in 2014 – not just because he is smart and innovative, but because he displays courage in tackling the status quo.

He has found an equally audacious counterpart in the province’s capital a few miles north. Edmonton’s Don Iveson hit the ground running on the poverty file from the moment he became mayor in 2013, not just ceding responsibility for new solutions to others, but by leading the charge himself. Saying he wanted to greatly reduce the city’s poverty in one generation, he immediately began bridge building with the city’s business community and with other interested partners. “We have to think inter-generationally,” he says, “to get it right for the future, not just for the politically expedient short-term.” Then his boldness came to the fore in a few words: “I’d rather do the right thing and lose the next election than do the wrong thing and win.”

These are interested days in the fabric of Canadian life, a time where poverty is becoming increasingly worrisome for Canadians. Yet the file is so complex that it’s difficult to know how to begin reducing it. Just having the will to change is not enough in this case; there must be leadership of the kind that forays out into all political, corporate, and civil society jurisdictions and calls everyone to begin walking into the future together rather than as mere disparate parts. Good will is a terrific beginning, but fair-minded determination inspired by bold leaders of spirit is what it will take if we are to succeed. Two mayors have opted to lead instead of delegate or bemoan the lack of attentiveness from senior political jurisdictions. In seeing their respective cities worthy of their very best, they are in the process of becoming exemplary leaders themselves.

If You Want to Fix Poverty, Fix the Economy

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HE AWOKE FROM A DEEP SLUMBER A couple of weeks ago to the sound of phone ringing incessantly, but when he answered he didn’t mind. Angus Deaton was being informed by someone on the other end of the phone that he was being awarded the Nobel Prize for Economic Science. Interestingly, it was how he shed new light on persistent poverty that earned him the credit. Or as the Nobel committee put it:

“To design economic policy that promotes welfare and reduces poverty, we must first understand individual consumption choices. Angus Deaton has enhanced this understanding.”

Deaton wasn’t so much focused on large market trends as on the average household and how choices are made within it. The Nobel committee has recently honoured a number of academics who have shown through their research that markets are inefficient and that there is great difficulty in knowing what to do about it.  Poverty is beginning to gain traction because of its very unfairness.

For too long now – centuries really – we have placed the blame for being of low-income squarely on the shoulders of the poor themselves. The amount of times we have heard that certain people should just get a job, or stop wasting their money on trivialities, or should go back to school stretches almost to infinity.

But to think that way is to misconstrue what is really happening. Worse, it can bring out some of the worst of subtle prejudices when we blindly believe that people are poor primarily because they are too idle or lack ambition. In reality, it is the way we organize our societies and the way institutions themselves enforce that organizing effect that leads to fewer and fewer opportunities for those in low-income situations.

A huge percentage of the non-working poor have been deemed irrelevant by a market design that increasingly seeks the advantage of productivity without heavy labour costs. People by the thousands are losing their jobs to this trend and yet it remains easier for us to blame the unemployed than it is for us to ask serious questions about the very future of work itself. If capitalism can increasingly get by without people, why, then, do we continue to lay blame on those who have been cast off? No serious researcher can lay claim to the belief that endless possibilities lie before the poor. In-depth data reminds us that people are increasingly constrained because how we construct democracy, promote capitalism, and determine the destination of wealth is, ever increasingly, limiting the opportunities for industrious people to enjoy a more prosperous life.

The secret, of course, is not to change the poor but the systems that create them. Yet it remains easier to blame a person down and out on their luck than it is to confront financial policies, political parties, elite societal structures, or crony capitalism. And, as Angus Deaton recently pointed out in his Nobel prizing winning work, when households themselves make selections that enforce the current financial structure, even average citizens can play a troubling role in enforcing poverty.

The importance of all this is that we could change these realities, but only if we show a willingness to pay for a more equitable society – all of us, including companies. That would require us to develop economic structures that don’t deliberately impoverish those the market deems disposable.

And speaking of the word “disposable,” it is the very lack of disposable income that lies at the root of poverty, not those people who lack it. It was Gandhi who made the troubling observation concerning how the colonial systems resulted in grinding poverty by claiming that, “Poverty is the worst form of violence.” Prejudice is at its worst when we not only wrongfully demean people, but when it refuses to provide them opportunity. Benign bigotry can be just as violent as a clenched fist. An opinion in the lack of evidence is nothing other than prejudice. With all that is up against the marginalized, and the economic systems that keep them in despair, useless accusations is the last thing they need. Fewer things are more frightful than ignorance that leads to inaction.

 

 

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