Guaranteed Annual Income – the good, the bad, and the ugly

MCNAUGHT - gain comic0001 copy
Comic by Debra McNaught

Imagine you’re a person with disabilities living on the BC welfare rate of $610 a month, paying $500 for rent. You get a part time job, earn $200, and declare it. This is completely legal, but then your welfare cheque stops for no reason. You need to solve this problem or risk eviction and starvation. You’re standing in line in the rain at the welfare office for hours and start to have a hard time standing. You could call but you don’t have a phone and you know that you’ll be on hold for upwards of an hour anyways. If you end up seeing a welfare worker, you know from previous experience that one visit or on phone call won’t be enough, they’ll want more documentation. You feel like screaming, crying or both.

When you’re facing indignities of living on a completely inadequate income and being disrespected by the welfare system, it’s reasonable to hope for a sort of welfare lottery ticket, a Guaranteed Annual Income (GAI).

This article is a plea for people who justly despise the welfare system: think carefully about rushing uncritically to support a GAI. We need to ask, who would get it? How much? How often? Who would pay for it? Would minimum wage be cut? Some GAI supporters want it to be paid for with a flat tax, where millionaires pay the same tax rate as a minimum wage worker. Is that fair? Some GAI advocates want all social programs “consolidated.” A cheque every month giving tax-free income to everyone might appear to be a progressive solution to poverty but does that mean that low-income people would have to depend on the unaffordable housing market rather than social housing? Would we be expected to pay for medical care with our GAI?

In theory, a GAI could mean that every resident of Canada receives thousands of dollars annually with no spending restrictions and no welfare office to deal with. But a GAI has a long history of being supported by wealthy business owners and often means much more reliance on the free market. Where one policy changes, another often adjusts to fit the wants of the wealthy.

The type of GAI we would get depends on the politics of the people who would implement it. Last year, Rank and File, a Canadian labour news website, wrote about the corporate connections of the new Liberal ministers. They included some of the new Liberal ministers listed below:

  • Former senior fellow at CD Howe Institute (which produced a lot of poor-bashing propaganda in the 1990s): Jean-Yves Duclos, now Minister of Families, Children and Social Development
  • Former senior financial analyst: Navdeep Bains, now Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development
  • Former finance minister (that gave corporations more tax cuts and increased military spending): Ralph Goodale, now Minister of Public Safety and Preparedness
  • Former investment banker: Scott Brison, now Treasury Board President
  • Former RBC economist: John McCallum, now Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship
  • The province of Ontario, which is also talking about a GAI, has implemented policies that hurt people on welfare with its new computer system and refuses to raise welfare and disability rates to liveable levels.

Should we trust these ministers and the Ontario government to implement a GAI that will redistribute the wealth and reduce poverty when they’ve benefited from this financial system as it stands? Austerity ripples through legislation under the cloak of progressive changes administered by a group of people who don’t feel the ground-level effects of those changes.

Without a shift in mentality, without the recognition that shared, secure public services save lives and improve communities, and without a willingness to prioritize people over profit, poverty will continue to thrive. So, when you hear the words “Guaranteed Annual Income” think carefully about what it really means, who is pushing for it, and whose interests they represent. It could backfire unless implemented by people whose focus is the needs of the poor, not the pockets of the rich.


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