Vatican economic advisor Charles Clark promotes basic income as part of poverty solution during a keynote address at St. Michael's College in Toronto Oct. 20. Photo by Michael Swan

Basic income can't be ignored, says Vatican expert

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  • October 27, 2017
A basic income guarantee, such as the pilot project currently running in three Ontario communities, is not an infallible teaching of the Catholic Church, but it can’t be dismissed, one of the Vatican’s top economic advisors told an interfaith conference on basic income.

“There’s no Catholic economic policy,” conceded economist Charles Clark in a keynote address to about 40 academics and basic income advocates at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto Oct. 20.

“We can’t call up the Fed and say ‘We want the Catholic interest rate.’ ”

However, Catholic social teaching clearly favours a more equal society, he said. That means Catholics are obliged to discover and promote economic policies that will produce less poverty, promote greater social mobility and inclusion, and result in distributive justice, Clark said.

Basic income won’t magically solve every problem, he said.

“Basic income is very important, but you still need public goods. You still need public education, you still need universal public health, you still need welfare. You need the state to do what the state can do,” said the St. John’s University professor.

Clark, an advisor to the Holy See’s mission to the United Nations in New York and a senior fellow with the Vincentian Centre for Church and Society, has advised government of Ireland on basic income policies and is studying the possibilities for basic income in Kenya.

He is one economist who gets Catholic theology, according to Marquette University Jesuit theologian Fr. Joseph Ogbonnaya.

“Catholic social teaching primarily promotes the human good. Basic income is aimed at promoting human well being,” said Ogbonnaya. “Even though it is not included in Catholic social teaching, (basic income) effectively implements most of the complementary framework of Catholic social teaching.”

“At a minimal level, everyone has to have — as a matter of justice — sufficient income to participate in our society,” said Clark. “(That means) purchasing power. We live in societies where we obtain our material needs through markets. We have to give people the purchasing power so they can have a minimum, decent living.”

Ontario is currently running a pilot program to measure the results of setting a floor under incomes in Lindsay, Thunder Bay and Hamilton. It will compare results for a group that receives the basic minimum income to other participants who do not receive the payments. A single person living alone would receive $16,989 per year, minus 50 per cent of any additional earned income. A couple receives $24,027, less half of any earned income.

To be eligible for the pilot program, participants have to qualify as low income — single people earning less than $34,000 per year and couples earning less than $48,000.

Ontario’s experiment is one of a number of similar projects running around the world. Basic income experiments are currently underway or planned in Finland, Netherlands, Barcelona, Scotland, West Oakland, Calif., and San Francisco.

In a time when wages no longer grow along with increases in productivity or a rising gross domestic product, society has to do something to rebalance an increasingly unequal distribution of wealth, said Clark.

“Inequality lowers mobility. Mobility is fundamental in society for democracy to work,” said Clark.

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