‘Basic income’ isn’t the ticket to a fairer society

Posted on February 14, 2021 in Social Security Policy Context

Source: — Authors:

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial

A new report out of British Columbia ought to drive the final nail in the coffin of a fatally flawed idea — the concept of a basic minimum income as a solution to many of the social ills that ail us.

Ought to, but of course won’t. A universal basic income is a tantalizing idea for many, mostly on the left but some also on the right, and it’s been given new life during the pandemic.

See how quickly the federal government could create the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and hand out $500 a week to millions of people, goes the common thinking, without a lot of bureaucratic hassling and without (so far at least) any financial consequences?

Surely, it continues, a similar approach could be taken to abolishing poverty by raising everyone above a certain minimum income threshold? Let’s get on with it!

Anyone still of a mind to make that argument should take the time to read the voluminous (over 500 pages) report of the British Columbia Expert Panel on Basic Income.

This is no simplistic dismissal of an idea that’s been kicked around for literally centuries. The authors, three well-respected academics who delved as deeply into this subject as anyone has, weigh the concept of a basic income and find it wanting in key aspects.

Like all people of good will, they seek a more equitable and just society. They certainly share the goal of doing away with poverty. But they conclude that a basic income isn’t the best way to get there.

It isn’t just money, although that’s part of it. They put the cost of a basic income plan in B.C. alone at $52 billion a year, enough to double the provincial budget. Compared to that, they say, more targeted measures that would achieve similar results could be had for between $3.3 billion and $3.5 billion.

But beyond money, they argue, the fatal flaw in basic income concepts (and there are many, depending on who’s making the case) is that they treat everyone as essentially the same. If you make sure everyone gets at least, say, $2,000 a month, then problem solved: no one falls below the poverty line and you don’t need a complex and costly web of social programs.

That’s largely the reason why basic income, in some form or other, has attracted support over the years from some on the right, including, famously, the libertarian economist Milton Friedman. He saw it as a way to pare back bureaucracy and tame the burgeoning welfare state.

The problem, of course, is that people aren’t at all the same. And that argument should carry more weight these days, when we realize that equality and equity aren’t the same thing. Different people start from different places, and require different supports to achieve their potential.

The authors of the B.C. report put it like this: “The needs of people in this society are too diverse to be effectively answered simply with a cheque from the government.” Giving the same amount to everyone, regardless of their circumstances, emphasizes their personal autonomy, they continue, but at the expense of “community, social interactions, responsibility and dignity.”

More concretely, what sense does it make to give everyone the same amount when some already have property and some don’t? When some live with disabilities or other problems, and others don’t? When some live in areas with a high cost of living, and some can live quite well on a lot less?

All this can be worked out, but it would mean bringing back rules (and the bureaucracy to enforce them), thereby under-cutting the case for a simple basic income.

All of which is not to say that the status quo is fine. It certainly isn’t. The authors of the B.C. report make a powerful case for working towards greater equity (including less poverty) through smarter, targeted measures.

That makes a lot more sense than chasing the elusive goal of a one-size-fits-all basic income.


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