Over the past few years we’ve been hearing more and more about “basic income”, “unconditional universal basic income”, or “universal basic income”. Everybody from healthcare specialists to anti-poverty advocates have been chiming in about it and making the case for basic income being a necessity as jobs become automated and times change. What is it? Let’s find out.
Basic Income 101
A basic income, or ‘UBI’, is a no-strings-attached monthly payment from the government that everyone would get. It would become everybody’s base salary amount, which would get added to if they had a job. The idea is that it would reduce or eliminate poverty by providing everybody with the minimum needed to put them at or above the poverty line. Basically, it’s the one thing that would have saved me and people like me a hell of a lot of heartache when the economic downturn first punched us in the face.
The Dauphin, Manitoba basic income experiment
From 1974 to 1979, the Trudeau’s federal Liberals and Schreyer’s Manitoba NDP ran an experiment on guaranteed annual income (nicknamed ‘mincome’, for minimum income) in Winnipeg and the boonies of the province. Dauphin was the only site where people could opt in to receive a minimum income and get a specific, set amount; the other locations’ recipients were randomly assigned.
Joe Clark’s Conservatives shut the whole thing down in 1979 and had the data shelved, with Canadians not even knowing this project existed for decades. Some of the information was analyzed in the 1980s and provided surprising results.
The people of Dauphin didn’t just stop working. There was very little impact on the overall workforce, with the most notable exceptions being that teenagers were less likely to work and instead concentrated on school. Those years marked higher rates of high school graduation than before. Mothers with newborn infants were able to take more time off to spend time with the baby, too.
Another unintended effect was the lack of social stigma of receiving UBI versus welfare, which I’m sure every single one of you is familiar with. The public views welfare recipients in a negative light instead of as people that are having a rough time and need help.
Hospital visits also dropped by just under 10% during the course of Dauphin’s experiment, as fewer people were having to go in for work-related health issues.
Can you imagine that now?
Alaska’s partial basic income
When the Permanent Fund was started up in Alaska in 1976, the state had earned over $900 billion in leases for oil drilling — and promptly pissed it away. Soon after that, Alaskans added an amendment to their constitution which states that:
“at least 25 percent of all mineral lease rentals, royalties, royalty sales proceeds, federal mineral revenue-sharing payments and bonuses received by the state be placed in a permanent fund, the principal of which may only be used for income-producing investments.”
What did this mean for Alaskans? Every year since 1982, a portion of the money that goes into the state from companies that extract its resources gets paid out to all living Alaskan citizens. The only requirement? That they’ve been living there for at least one year.
This fluctuates between $1500-$2000 per year, depending upon how much money the state pulls in from its resources and investments.
The impact has been positive. Although it’s not enough to live on, it does provide a boost to families, especially in counties where there just isn’t much wage-based work available. It allows families to make one guaranteed large purchase per year, and/or put money away for the future when times are tough.
Oh, and one of the best parts? Alaska is only second to Utah for the lowest amount of income inequality in any of the states, and it’s the only one where the lowest-earning 20% of the population have their incomes grow faster than the highest-earning 20%.
Why push for UBI?
Automation is ramping up.
We’ve seen the manufacturing sector replace millions of jobs with robots at an average cost of $8/hour compared to $25/hour for a human worker. Let’s take General Motors in Canada, which went from 40,000 workers across the country in the 1990s to about 8000 around 2012. Self-driving cars and trucks are currently in testing phases and could replace human-driven vehicles in as little as ten years. Whether people want to admit it or not, the manufacturing sector is not going to return to an all-human workforce; machines are far too efficient to give them up.
Even service-oriented jobs are starting to see more automation. You don’t have to talk to a cashier at McDonald’s anymore. There are several other fast-food-restaurant robots being used in China and Japan, too, including ones that interact with customers.
We’re in a position now where getting a job that pays someone well above the poverty line requires specialized training. If you had a job and then lost it anytime over the past ten years, it means having to go back to school, or go for the first time in your life. Even then, with training for a niche position, you aren’t guaranteed to get a job.
A woman in computer sciences? Good luck. Over fifty? I’m sorry. A woman that’s assumed to be of childbearing age (regardless of whether or not they want a family)? You’re seen as a liability, too.
This is without taking stock of the fact that college and university are expensive. Not even skilled trades are safe — a robot can complete welding work on the auto assembly line for about $5/hour.
What other benefits does UBI have?
Universal basic income would reduce the need for welfare, employment insurance, and other similar programs — or remove them entirely. Healthcare costs to the provinces would be reduced because of fewer people receiving workplace injuries, lower stress levels, and fewer work-related mental health problems. Not having money coming in and trying to find a job as quickly as possible are both very, very hard on one’s mental health. I developed severe anxiety and worsening depression because of this, y’know. A basic income would take a lot of weight off my shoulders and those of so many others.
Imagine a world where working part-time isn’t seen as a horrible thing, where people can afford to get as much education as they want without working themselves to death, and a single mom can put food on the table without sacrificing time with her kids.
In general, the different services that are used to help the poor get by can be eliminated or rolled together. Recommendations for Ontario’s basic income experiment stated a monthly UBI of about $1300, with an extra $500 for those who have a disability (making UBI worth a hell of a lot more to disabled Ontarians than ODSP). You can learn more about Ontario’s pilot program here.
It would be ridiculous to keep putting off basic income. It needs to happen sooner rather than later.
Think of it this way: people not having to prove they’re in need means fewer hours wasted with bureaucracy and paperwork and all the nonsense in-between. Streamlining government? We can have that.
Not convinced? Here’s more information:
- Scott Santens explains that basic income =/= a lack of work.
- Why we should all have a basic income
- Basic Income Canada
- Basic Income FAQ