It’s past time for a Guaranteed Livable Income

by | May 17, 2021 | creating conversation | 0 comments

On April 8 number of us gathered outside of our MP’s office, in response to the federal Liberal and NDP parties’ decision to repeatedly delay and defer instituting a Guaranteed Livable Income (GLI).

Our vigil was one of over 50 such vigils across Canada among people who strongly believe that establishing a GLI is a key way in which we can take up the commandment to love our neighbour as ourself.

Just as Old Age Assistance took a long stretch of lobbying and advocacy before it was implemented, so too has the road towards acceptance of GLI been lengthy. But I and others do not give up, because we believe that GLI is a policy that can strengthen our country.

Let me offer reasons why I believe that churches should be at the forefront of advocating for this policy as well as some of the questions or reservations that I often hear regarding GLI.

What is a Guaranteed Income?

One version is a demogrant, another a refundable tax credit (RTC). Eligibility for either type of benefit is not conditional upon employment or assets but can be conditional upon age or family or citizenship status.

demogrant is a fixed amount of income paid to all families or individuals, regardless of their income level. The amount is not clawed back or reduced by the amount of income the family or individual has. Historical examples are the Family Allowance and Old Age Assistance benefits.

Refundable Tax Credit (RTC) provides families or individuals with no other income a maximum benefit – the Guarantee – which is then reduced as the family’s or individual’s other sources of income increase. Clawback rates vary.

An example of an RTC is the Old Age Security (OAS) benefit. All seniors with incomes up to $77,580 receive the full annual value of the OAS benefit ($7,370). For those with higher incomes, the benefit is reduced at the rate of 15 percent, such that those with incomes greater than $126,713 get no OAS benefits.

Does Canada already have Guaranteed Income Programs?

The federal government offers three guaranteed income programs – two for seniors and one for children. The two seniors’ programs are Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement for low income seniors. The Canada Child Benefit provides a benefit to all children under 18 years of age.

On December 8, 2020, the PEI legislature accepted the final report of its Special Committee on Poverty to develop and implement a Basic Income Program. It will undertake talks with the federal government to assist with its funding.

It is worth noting that the single non-elderly adult group faces the highest rate and greatest depth of poverty of all demographic groups.

What is a Livable Income?

Canada’s official poverty line is the Market Basket Measure (MBM). It prices a basket of goods and services deemed to provide a “modest, basic standard of living.” That basket is then priced annually by Statistics Canada for 53 different regions in the country that include all provinces except the territories and First Nations communities.

A national GLI would use as its Guarantee the population weighted average value of the 53 different MBM thresholds. For 2019, that national weighted average MBM for a four-person family would be $44,860. For a single adult, the average MBM threshold would be $22,430. For two, three, five and six person households, the national MBM thresholds would be $31,720, $38,850, $50,155 and $54,942, respectively.

How much would it cost to provide a Guaranteed Livable Income to all Canadians?

It depends on how it is designed. The four key components in the construction of a GLI, designed as a refundable tax credit, are:

  • the size of the Guarantee;
  • the rate at which that Guarantee is clawed back against other income (Benefit Reduction Rate or BRR);
  • the definition of the income used to claw back the value of the Guarantee; and
  • the demographic unit used to calculate the value of the GLI.

A shorter answer: it costs from $44 – $88+ billion, depending on levels and recovered funds.

Where does the money come from to pay for a GLI?

There are a variety of sources available to the federal and provincial governments to pay for a national GLI, including:

  • Cancellation of (some) existing social programs;
  • Closure of tax loopholes/expenditures;
  • Increases in personal and corporate income taxes;
  • Removal of non-refundable tax credits;
  • Imposition of new taxes;

The net effect of using a broad band of revenue sources are several including the consolidation of multiple federal and provincial income transfer programs into one and reliance on all Canadians to contribute to the cost but on a more progressive basis with the wealthier contributing more.

What is the effect of a GLI on people’s willingness to work?

Mincome (the Manitoba Basic Annual Income Experiment in the 1970s) found that male heads worked one percent fewer hours, secondary earners worked three percent fewer hours and female heads worked seven percent fewer hours. Similar findings via a recent Ontario (though cancelled) pilot.

A federal/provincial/territorial evaluation of the National Child Benefit program that started in the late 1990s found that the female spouse’s labour force participation also declined with the receipt of the child benefit but they used the extra hours for home-related work such as child-rearing.

What other effects does a GLI have on the lives of recipients?

The public health journal, Lancet Public Health[1], reviewed the range of social and health effects of a range of guaranteed income programs on recipients’ lives. They include:

  • Teens more likely to remain in and complete high school;
  • Reduction in low birth weight babies and higher birth weights associated with higher benefits;
  •  Lower probability of child obesity at age three;
  • Less use of hospitals due mainly to fewer accidents or injuries and mental health diagnoses;
  • Reduction in young adult obesity.
  • Reductions in criminal activity.

This article was originally published in Church for Vancouver.

[1] Marcia Gibson, PhD, Wendy Hearty, MPH, and Peter Craig, PhD, “The Public Health Effects of Interventions Similar to Basic Income: A Scoping Review,” The Lancet Public Health 5, Issue 3 March 01, 2020, accessed May 03, 2021. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpub/article/PIIS2468-2667(20)30005-0/fulltext )

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What is the anticipated political resistance and/or stone-walling from the political-economic powers to (actually!) adopt and implement a GLI?

Grace MacInnis noted in her book about her father, J.S. Woodsworth: A Man to Remember, how the old age pensions arose – with concerns that the family (if intact) of a senior would be absolved of responsibilities to care for their older relative due to government assistance and/or the recipient would be rendered lazy in quick order, and even blameworthy for lack of thrift. The House of Commons/Senate felt that, if passed, the people would rebel and reject it outright.

What moral and/or theological justification is there for a livable income, that is universal, guaranteed and annual?

Biblical prophets consistently issue mandates for justice (Micah 6:8, Amos 5:24), demanding equality and fair treatment (including the foreigner, even enemy), and using a people’s abundance for purposes of redressing inequalities and deprivations (II Corinthians 8:13-14).

Jesus’ teachings exemplify God’s concern for living wages or support (Matthew 20:1-16). Social ethics, the regulative principles of justice-making and keeping, summon the dynamic and priority applications of equality, liberty, forbearance, and (fair) order.

Also, vigilance. During the pandemic, government authorities have employed income measures to assist people threatened and endangered. It proved it possible to act quickly, caringly and constructively. But such measures are fragile, subject to withdrawal at the signs of returning to the ‘old norms’ and exempting the rich from redistributing their recent and accumulated windfalls via progressive taxes.

Could the church influence a movement to adopt a GLI policy? 

First, the church’s history is important, including its social gospel role of supporting the introduction of Old Age pensions and then, later, GIS (Guaranteed Income Supplement) programs.

Second, as a faith community of seniors, with its fragility and yet accumulated wisdom and readiness, one actively hopes for prophetic actions to advocate the redress of inequalities.

If – when – the government institutes a GLI what are the chances of it being withdrawn when inconvenient or through catering to special interests?

A watchful, vigilant caveat is necessary: what can be given can be taken away. It is vital that the moves for advocating a GLI be broad-based. We practice hope that – as with the origins of the 1920s Old Age Pensions – our democratic and prophetic witness safeguards an enduring adequate / livable income level and guarantee.

How essential is it that poor people have meaningful input, from beginning to implementation to reviews?

The poor must be involved – naming what is needed, what plans and programs are enacted and in the actual implementation and review. With many poor people’s organizations eclipsed or in dormancy, this would be anxiously and insufficiently left in the hands, at best it seems, of advocates (though one hopes for conscientious bureaucrats).

What reservations/criticisms from our faith communities?

Introducing GLI might threaten the current batches of charity or relief programs – daily, occasional, yearly – that give us a sense of being ‘useful’ even, alas, allowing us to interpret charity as justice (redistribution of resources) even if inadequate and non-guaranteed.

Commendable is St. Augustine’s dictum: Charity is no substitute for justice withheld. Dag Hammarskjöld steadfastly expressed: No peace (with justice) unless for all; no rest until all fulfilled (Markings, 35).

I got into all this GLI advocacy decades ago; it is no sprint to a finish line. Rather it is a marathon of marathons.

I have advocated for the GLI for more than two generations, working with the United Church of Canada (UCC) 1970s Poverty Task Force. We hoped this contributed to the collective “mind of the church, knowing that an organized level of grass-roots support was sorely needed. I have since been a thankful part of an advocacy network chiefly within the UCC and drawing on research and advocacy materials from ecumenical churches.

Barry Morris

Barry Morris

Position

Barry Morris is a United Church minister who has served at the Longhouse Council of Native Ministry  in east Vancouver for 30 years. He is the author of A Faithful Public-Prophetic Witness.

In a letter dated August 3, 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer sketched an outline for a book he never wrote. The outline concludes with a description of a ‘church for others’ – a consistent theme throughout Bonhoeffer’s theology. Read more

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