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The guaranteed income debate

by Laura Marchand January 26, 2016
The guaranteed income debate

Students sound off on a blank cheque for every Canadian

Financial troubles and higher education seem to go hand-in-hand: who hasn’t heard the stereotype of the student eating instant noodles for the 12th night in a row? Student debt is a harsh reality for many, even years after receiving their degree.

Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada, made guaranteed livable income part of the party’s campaign platform. Photo by Keith Race.

Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada, made guaranteed livable income part of the party’s campaign platform. Photo by Keith Race.

To make ends meet, many students work while they study: 49 per cent of all full-time Canadian students earn while they learn, according to a Statistics Canada report. The report also notes that the average student works approximately 17 hours a week at their part-time job, earning around $6, 000 a school year—far short of the “median cost of the … school year for postsecondary students age 18 to 24 [which] was $10,900,” and a different Statistics Canada report claims that “full-time students in Canada paid an average of $14, 500 to pay for post-secondary schooling in 2010–2011”.

Yet, this is how most students manage to pay for their education: “more than one-half of students report that either savings (27 per cent) or earnings (26 per cent) provide the largest amount of money towards the total cost of their school year.”

That’s an average of 17 hours a week that isn’t spent studying. A study by Jeffrey S. DeSimone, Professor at the University of Maryland for the United States National Economic Bureau concluded that “each additional weekly work hour reduces academic year GPA by 0.011 points.” For those who are already struggling—financially or academically—balancing work and studies is a high-stakes juggle between education and debt.

Is there an alternative? Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party, proposed one in the last federal election: a Guaranteed Livable Income (GLI). The proposed GLI would eliminate poverty-focused welfare programs, and replace them with a blank check: $10,000 for anyone making below a certain threshold, students included.

In its public platform statement, the Green Party wrote it was “deeply concerned about the widening income gap, and the steadily increasing numbers of people trapped in the low-wage economy—workers, especially our young, who are struggling to survive with part-time, non-standard precarious employment.”

The Green Party claims that Canada spent one tenth of its gross domestic product (GDP) on income support in 2013, a sum of about $185 billion. They also claim that one third of Canadians make less than $20,000 a year. The plan would involve the GLI being taxed back as the recipient’s own income rises, and at $60,000 the recipient would no longer receive the stimulus.

Speaking to the Huffington Post, May argued that ridding Canada of the bureaucracy that surrounds the welfare system, in addition to lowering poverty-induced strain on the hospitals, would save the government billions. “It will fix our health-care system, it will fix our criminal justice system,” said May last November. “But more than that, it gives every Canadian kid a chance to succeed in life.”

In 2014, the Liberal Party of Canada passed Policy Resolution 100, which called for “a Federal Liberal Government work with the provinces and territories to design and implement a Basic Annual Income in such a way that differences are taken into consideration under the existing Canada Social Transfer System.”

Although previous Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau admitted it was a “good theory,” he is quoted by the Toronto Star as expressing his skepticism. “We cannot guarantee to bring everyone over the poverty line by giving them part of the taxpayers’ pocket.”

Concordia students, however, feel that a guaranteed livable income would have helped them in their studies.

“Our books are not cheap,” said Claudio Pantoni, a mechanical engineering major at Concordia. “Being in engineering … you should be taking five classes a semester. But I have to do four to be able to work to pay for everything else—school, bills, whatnot.”

Autumn Cadorette, an art history major at Concordia, said she believes a guaranteed livable income would allow low-income Canadians to pursue post-secondary studies.

“[It will] promote education, because a lot of people don’t get as much of an education as they want because they can’t afford it,” said Cadorette, who described the GLI proposal as something “the student population needs.”

Emil St-Pierre, a recent graduate of Concordia University’s master’s anthropology program, said the extra income could have helped fellow students he saw struggling.

I also know many students … that would have been able to graduate debt free, avoid precarious work, and worry less about rent with $10,000 a year (or even less),” said St-Pierre. He said he especially saw many students who “wanted to pursue further studies, but weren’t able to do so because they had no income living as students.”

According to a poll conducted by the Trudeau Foundation and Concordia University, 46 per cent of Canadians support the idea of a guaranteed income, with 42 per cent opposed. Support for the measure is most popular “in Quebec and among Canadians with lower levels of education and income, while most strongly opposed by Albertans and high income Canadians,” according to the report.

“The pushback is usually that everybody’s going to be just lazy and sit back and do nothing their whole life because the state is taking care of them. What they actually found was that that wasn’t what people did,” said May to the Huffington Post, citing a Manitoba experiment where the small town of Dauphin, Manitoba received GDI cheques for a five-year period between 1974-1979.

In 2011, the University of Manitoba released a report revisiting the results of that Manitoba “Mincome” (minimum income) experiment. The report found that “specifically hospitalizations for accidents and injuries and mental health diagnoses” fell during the experiment, and “students in grade 11 seemed more likely to continue to grade 12 than their rural or urban counterparts during the experiment.” Even those that did not receive the supplemental income contributed to an upward trend: “the involvement of friends and neighbours in the scheme might have led to changes in social attitudes and behaviours that influenced individual behaviour even among families that did not receive the supplement.”

Speaking to the Huffington Post, May said the GDI debate can be boiled down to a single phrase: “The question is what do we think of human nature?”

A previous version of this article quoted Justin Trudeau speaking against guaranteed income. These comments in reality came from Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Justin Trudeau’s father. The Concordian apologizes for this error.

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