At minimum the poor deserve dignity

  • May 9, 2024

The issue of a guaranteed basic minimum income (BMI) is again before the public thanks to a bill before the Senate that would implement such a national income support program. It would be too much to say that poverty is a front-burner concern. Reducing poverty is almost never a major issue for most of the population. It seems only those who suffer poverty or have experienced in the past know its debilitating effects.

Yet a BMI is an issue which will not go away. Alberta’s Social Credit government of the 1930s Depression attempted to introduce a guaranteed income, but the Supreme Court ruled that provinces have no jurisdiction to implement the type of program the Socreds wanted.

In the 1970s, a Manitoba NDP government launched a trial program in Dauphin which lasted for four years until inflation and a change in government ended the experiment. The Ontario Liberals started a short-lived BMI in 2017 which was cancelled once the Conservatives came to power. A couple of years later, the British Columbia government carried out an extensive study that the Green Party made a condition for its support of a minority NDP government.

Other nations have also studied the possibility of a BMI but none have instituted anything close to a universal program for its citizens.

Catholics should be interested in these proposals as “the universal destination of all goods” is a basic principle of Church social teaching. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church describes the principle in these words: “God gave the Earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone.” Every person and family has the right to a livable income.

Governments have created a patchwork of social programs aimed at bringing about more income equality. Such programs are costly and create large bureaucracies which often dehumanize those in poverty.

Perhaps the best BMI program to examine is the Manitoba program in Dauphin from 1974 to 1979, a city which then had a population of 10,000. The program ran for several years in a specific geographic area. Mincome, as it was called, helped 2,128 people, providing them with monthly cheques that raised their incomes to an established threshold.

Over the duration of the program, hospital visits declined 8.5 per cent, negative mental health incidents decreased and the high school completion rate rose to 100 per cent. The decline in hospital visits was due mainly to a decrease in alcohol-related accidents. One cannot be certain Mincome was the only cause of these improvements; other factors may have been involved. But the evidence suggests Mincome made a significant contribution to these improvements.

A UNESCO survey of the 10-month Ontario program found 83 per cent of respondents who were involved in the program reported improved mental health and less depression. Tobacco and alcohol use declined among 56 and 48 per cent of respondents respectively. They also said they became more involved socially and took part in physical activity more often. They ate better, had improved housing and could afford new clothes.

A universal BMI could have serious downsides. No one knows how much it would cost, but some estimates are extremely high. In Canada, it would demand cooperation among different levels of government, something all too rare.

However, the hidden financial and human costs of poverty are also stratospheric. Poverty is the largest single determinant of health due to poor nutrition, inadequate housing and greater environmental risks. People in poverty are more likely to end up in jail and less likely to get a good education. Poverty leads to increased policing costs and decreased economic productivity. A 2019 Ontario study estimated the cost of poverty in that province alone at between $27.1 billion and $33 billion.

To add a BMI on top of existing income support programs would be folly. Programs such as social assistance, Old Age Security and the child tax credit could be eliminated with a corresponding decrease in bureaucracy. The threshold income would have to be set with care, establishing an income high enough to be livable and low enough that it does not create disincentives to find work.

But the primary goal must be an increase in human dignity. Dignity is reduced not only by a low income and all that results from it but also by civil servants prying into the details of one’s life. A properly established BMI would respect the dignity of the poor in every way.

(Glen Argan writes his online column Epiphany at https://glenargan.substack.com.)

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