If implemented in Canada, this financial support program could improve the lives of all Canadians.
Anyone who says that money can’t buy happiness has likely never heard of Universal Basic Income. They’ve also probably never considered the reality of the millions of Canadians who live in extreme poverty and the measures it would take to address this issue. If implemented, this program could have far-reaching positive impacts in reducing and preventing poverty—by extension, it could improve the health, mental health and living conditions of Canadians.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, what is Universal Basic Income? UBI—sometimes referred to as guaranteed basic income—is a no-strings-attached income program in which every Canadian above the age of 17 receives a monthly payment that is enough to cover their basic needs. This would be a direct transfer of funds regardless of income, employment status or any factor that usually determines social aid eligibility. As a result, every citizen would be given a foundation upon which to build a better life. The exact amount is unclear, but amounts cited usually seem to be around $1,000 per month. For now, talk of UBI seems to be just talk; however, the Senate Chamber is currently considering a bill that would push the finance minister to create a framework for the program.
UBI is not a new idea, nor is it unique to Canada. United States President Richard Nixon proposed a Family Assistance Plan in 1969 that bore major resemblances to guaranteed income, and Martin Luther King Jr. said guaranteed income was the most effective way to tackle poverty. The largest North American pilot project to test the program, however, took place in the small town of Dauphin, Manitoba, from 1974 to 1979. During those four years, every citizen was given the money they needed to survive. The results of this project, which came to be known as “Mincome,” were striking—the need for health care and mental health care declined and there was a higher graduation rate in highschools.
With any major proposition comes concerns and criticisms. For example, why should rich people receive a handout too? And where will all this money come from? UBI Works, a platform dedicated to the program, argues that the program could be funded through higher taxes on the wealthy, including fewer tax breaks for companies, which means that wealthy people would not ultimately be beneficiaries.
Another criticism of UBI is the “reciprocity worry,” wherein it is argued that it is unfair to reward people who are not contributing to the workforce. This is a concern especially as UBI seemingly decreases the desire and need to work. Though that may seem plausible, the fact that UBI only covers basic necessities would mean that people will continue working. The Mincome Project proved this, as only recent mothers and high school students showed a decline in labour. Providing a liveable baseline does not promote laziness, it only gives people the basics that everyone deserves. What’s more, UBI may become a necessity as AI reshapes the job market.
With that in mind, we can also begin to reconsider how a capitalist society has shaped our values in regards to work. The reciprocity worry hinges on the idea that a person’s usefulness is contingent on how much they work and fails to acknowledge non-remunerated contributions such as caring for children. UBI would help us grow toward a world in which “work” is redefined and life is not centered around labour.
This is especially important when hard work doesn’t always pay off. Approximately 3.7 million Canadians live in poverty, according to a 2021 Canadian Government report. This translates to roughly 10% of the population who do not have the means to cover all their basic necessities such as food, clothing, transportation, and shelter. As someone who grew up in a household below the poverty line and who is lucky enough to no longer be in that situation, I understand the impacts of poverty as well as the importance of social assistance. There’s a misconception that poor people just don’t work hard enough, but that’s simply untrue. The reality is that the poverty cycle is near impossible to break, and every situation varies immensely.
It also must be noted that poverty disproportionately affects marginalized groups such as BIPOC, members of the LGBTQIA2+ community, immigrants and refugees, radicalized people, and single-parent families. Poverty is an issue of human rights.
Take a moment to imagine a world with UBI. Lower stress will lead to lower rates of depression and substance abuse. Students can focus on their studies. People will have more time to devote to their families, to their hobbies, and to following career paths they actually enjoy. Small businesses will pop up. People will travel more. Pipe dreams will become possible.
This program may not solve all problems, but it has the power to drastically improve lives. Everyone has the right to achieve a proper standard of living without fighting for it everyday. Universal Basic Income is just one step, but it is a big one.