Tackle poverty with income guarantee

LeaderPost.com – news
July 5, 2012.    By Greg Fingas, Special to the Leader Post

The Saskatchewan Party’s labour and employment policy seems to be aimed at rolling back workers’ rights by a century. But as long as we’re discussing the basic relationship between workers, employers and the province at the Wall government’s request, it’s worth considering another option that could restore Saskatchewan to the forefront of Canadian social development.

Let’s start from the theory that the opportunity to plan and innovate without endangering one’s own livelihood or future freedom of action is an important factor in producing positive adaptive outcomes. Indeed, that’s exactly the principle used to justify limited liability for corporations: we accept that better outcomes can result when businesses are free to experiment with strategies which either succeed or fail on their own merits, while minimizing the damage if the worst comes to pass.

When it comes to individuals, though, we’re often told to believe the opposite. Social benefits have been slashed on the theory that mere workers should accept whatever jobs are open – no matter how temporary or how poor a fit – in order to muddle through in the short term. (See for example the federal Conservatives’ recent cuts to employment insurance benefits – which were spun in part through Jim Flaherty’s claim that there’s no such thing as a bad job.)

For most of us, the contrast between how we treat our corporations and how we treat our citizens is harmful on two fronts. We’re limited in our own ability to pursue new paths for ourselves in the absence of any reliable social safety net. And we miss out on the greater development that might come from a population where more people can plan for the longer term.

But the gap can be closed in one relatively simple step. A guaranteed income would ensure that nobody is stuck in the poverty traps of higher prices and entry barriers to social participation – precisely the factors that force lower-income citizens into a focus on survival until the next meal or paycheque, rather than being able to plan ahead.

And there’s an obvious precedent to offer guidance in designing a guaranteed income plan. Based on the town of Dauphin’s Mincome pilot project, a guaranteed income wouldn’t substantially reduce the workforce as critics might complain.

Instead, only a few groups such as students and young parents might be inclined to rely on the income guarantee as more than a temporary measure – and there, the income support serves to direct more attention toward unpaid work and study, which lead to substantial social dividends. Meanwhile, the balance of the working-age population would change its habits only through some greater selectivity in accepting work – not in the amount of work actually performed.

The simple step of protecting workers from severe income risk could then create positive spillover effects in other policy areas. The Mincome program produced a plunge in health-care expenses, while the range of social costs associated with poverty and inequality would also be reduced. And the most contentious disputes in labour and employment policy might be much less heated if workers weren’t implicitly told they have to compromise their own health, safety or rights to eke out a living.

Of course, some people see limits on citizens’ ability to plan for the longer term as either an acceptable cost, or a downright handy means of lessening their influence. And so we shouldn’t expect Brad Wall’s government to show much interest in genuine income security for Saskatchewan residents. But we should still ask whether the Saskatchewan Party has missed the most important improvement we could make to our future working conditions – and call for change if so.

Fingas is a Regina lawyer, blogger and freelance political commentator who has written about provincial and national issues from a progressive NDP perspective since 2005. His column appears every Thursday. You can read more from Fingas at www.gregfingas.com

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