Activists protest the end to the basic income pilot project by Ontario Premier Doug Ford and the Conservative party. Photo courtesy Pamela Cornell

Authors make the case for basic income strategy

By 
  • November 12, 2021

In November 2017 people lined up for hours in Lindsay, Ont., in hopes of registering for Ontario’s basic income pilot program.

The program instituted by the Liberals of then-Premier Kathleen Wynne was to provide payments to 4,000 low-income people from select communities across the province for eight months. The pilot project came to an end with the election of the Conservative government in 2018.

William Winston, a 51-year-old struggling with physical and mental illness who participated in the program, says the move from disability assistance to basic income changed his life so much that it significantly reduced feelings of anxiety and depression caused by the effects of poverty. Winston’s story is just one of the stories highlighted in Jamie Swift and Elaine Power’s 2021 book, The Case for Basic Income: Freedom, Security, Justice.

In 200 pages, the book provides an up-to-date look at basic income in the age of pandemic, where many found themselves unexpectedly without a livelihood. Using storytelling as a device, Swift and Power outline the journey of activists, journalists and recipients of the program. Unlike most other works on the subject, the authors aimed to put a human and geographical lens on a subject they say is often misunderstood.

“It’s not a policy book,” said Swift, who along with Power is part of the Kingston Action Group for Basic Livable Income. “We try to explain to a general reader what basic income can and should mean for people who would receive it.”

The stories aren’t just about low-income people who were on basic income, but tell the story of the social movement, how it developed, its strengths and weaknesses.

“We try to use those folks (we interviewed) as prisms through which are reflected the issues that are really important to basic income such as a sense of security, for instance, and knowing that you will no longer have to spend a lot of anxious time wondering how to pay the rent or buy food for yourself,” said Swift.

Basic income has had strong support from Catholic justice groups over the years. Swift, a journalist and social justice activist, has been involved with basic income advocacy since around 2013. While not a Catholic himself, he was turned onto the path of advocacy while working with the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul.

Swift began working for the sisters’ social justice office, now called the Justice Peace and Integrity of Creation Office, and was employed there for 15 years up until three years ago.

When the pandemic hit, basic income advocates who had long struggled to get people to pay heed were amazed by general public support for a financial subsidy which became CERB. High profile proponents of basic income, including Canadian political strategist Hugh Segal and author Evelyn Forget, argued that the CERB amounted to “the largest experiment in basic income that anyone could imagine,” write Swift and Power. The potential legacy of the pandemic, they argue, is a raised consciousness of the uncertainty of life and that anyone might fall into a situation of need.

What makes basic income different from other programs, such as disability assistance or welfare, is that it offers those in need regular government payment without conditions. The no-strings approach allows low-income earners to have the freedom to truly lift themselves out of poverty. Pope Francis, in a recent keynote address to popular justice movements across the globe, reaffirmed support for a universal basic income, calling for “a basic income or salary so that everyone in the world may have access to the most basic necessities of life.”

Sr. Sue Wilson, CSJ, executive director of the Office for Systemic Justice with the Federation of Sisters of St. Joseph of Canada, has taken a policy lens to poverty activism in the push for wider systemic change. She calls Swift “a strong voice for social and economic change in Canada” and hopes the combination of the pandemic experience highlighted by this book will help to give further voice to the issue.

“In the pandemic all of a sudden people lost access to basic resources when their jobs shut down,” said Wilson. “It wasn’t just a few people, it was far more widespread than we’re used to. Everybody knew somebody who was in trouble. I think that kind of awareness helps to shift public opinion.”

While cost is an issue, proponents argue it is doable. In January 2020, the Basic Income Canada Network came out with a detailed study on the economics of providing a livable income. Advocates say it will depend, like issues such as affordable housing and universal child care, on meaningful and profound tax reform.

“The critics will always argue that it’s way too expensive and can never afford it,” said Swift. “That was said back in the ’60s in reference to (universal health care). The lobby led by insurance companies and physicians predicted that the sky would fall. The sky did not fall and of course it’s Canada’s most popular social program. The numbers are there with respect to affordability.”

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