I was riding in a car with my brother-in-law after attending the November 24 Basic Income Symposium at Winnipeg Harvest, and we got into a conversation (or perhaps more of a monologue) about the relative levels of poverty in Canada and in China, where he had been living.
He had a hard time understanding why a rich country like Canada, with a social safety net that most people can access, at least to some extent, would need anything like a Basic Income for all. In Shanghai, he said, the people were far poorer than most of the people in this country, and yet they had no sense of entitlement that many Canadians have.
In China, according to my brother-in-law, people live without the social safety net that Canadians expect—no public employment insurance, old age security, or child benefits. Still, the people live at least as contentedly as Canadians do, despite their poverty.
As the drive through Winnipeg progressed, I tried to explain the idea behind a basic income and to show that, while it might not be as necessary in Canada as in China, it could still be an extremely useful tool for bringing more equality to this country. Greater equality, in turn, would bring increased participation in all aspects of society and reduce the possibility of social discontent and rebellion.
Action is especially necessary for people who are working but not making any progress towards greater economic security. Dr. Evelyn Forget in her comments during the symposium noted that although programs exist for seniors and other specific groups, “The real mess is for working-age Canadians.”
Those were some of the themes discussed at the Basic Income Symposium, which featured presentations on the situations in Canada and Australia. The idea is that every person in the country would receive enough money to live on, regardless of whether they worked or not or if they qualified for the patchwork of benefits that are now available.
One notable feature in the discussion was the Dauphin experiment of the 1970s. As Dr. Forget explains in her research on the subject, a select number of the Manitoba town’s residents had the opportunity to sign up for a guaranteed annual income if they wished, with a matched control group from Winnipeg for comparison.
As speakers including Sid Frankel and James Mulvale commented, people who received an income they had not earned might be expected to stop participating in the workforce. Yet that was not the result of the Dauphin experiment; there was no appreciable decline in productivity or dedication among the Dauphin participants in relation to the population at large.
Not only did people work almost as much as before, but they also stayed in school longer, spent more time looking after children, and received better grades in school. If the results of a guaranteed income would be the same in other communities, many of society’s problems could be solved.
Speakers at the conference touched on some of the technical questions of how such a program could work. Although they acknowledged that implementing a basic income could be difficult, the speakers were confident that something of the kind is not only possible, but highly desirable.
Participants at the Basic Income Symposium came from many different segments of society, from journalists to anti-poverty activists, such as Josh Brandon of Make Poverty History Manitoba, to interested observers. A good lunch, the chance to mingle with like-minded people, and knowledgeable speakers helped to make the event informative and worthwhile.