Friday, March 4, 2016

A Bold Experiment Or A Necessary Support?

The concept of a guaranteed annual income just won't go away. It is regarded by some as an effective way of addressing the increasingly wide disparities afflicting our society, and reviled by others as an affront to individualism and a disincentive to work. I fall into the former camp, and empirical evidence appears to be on my side.

Here is a brief backgrounder:

A certain momentum seems to be building. Senator Art Eggleton, for example, is calling upon the federal government to initiate a pilot program:
“Quite frankly, the social welfare system that we have throughout this country, mainly run by provinces, it’s just not working,” said Eggleton. “We have one in seven people living in poverty in this country. That’s a shameful thing in a country as rich as Canada.”

Instead of pouring billions into a system that doesn’t help lift people out of poverty, he said, “I think it’s time to try a new approach. And I think a basic income could be that approach.”
There is interest in other jurisdictions as well. Quebec is onboard with the idea, and Ontario has announced plans for a pilot project, the details of which are yet to come.

A recent opinion piece written by Laura Anderson and Dr. Danielle Martin argues that considering the many possible positive outcomes, such a pilot program needs to be designed carefully. A past flirtation with the idea can be instructive.

Labour market outcomes were a major consideration in the 1970's Dauphin, Manitoba experiment with a guaranteed annual income. No one wants a plan that discourages people from working. Anderson and Martin point out that the Dauphin experiment did not discourage participation, with but two exceptions:
The first was women with infants at home, who effectively used the BIG [basic income guarantee] to purchase maternity leave. We should expect a different response from women in modern-day Canada, where maternity leave benefits are much more extensive. But where child care and other supports for working parents are insufficient, we may see responses to a BIG that will show us those cracks in the system.

The other group whose employment levels decreased under Mincome was teenage boys. A closer look reveals that with a basic income guarantee, male high school students were more likely to make the decision to stay in school until graduation. Given the Ontario government’s aim of increasing graduation rates and the need for a highly educated population, it will be important to understand how people’s labour market decisions interact with other important choices.
Perhaps the biggest changes that would come with the elimination of poverty are to be found in healthcare outcomes:
Poverty is the biggest determinant of health. As such, we should expect to see significant improvements in health among recipients of a basic income. For example, the Mincome data showed that under a BIG, hospital visits dropped by 8.5 per cent. This included fewer emergency room visits from car crashes and domestic abuse, and fewer mental health visits. In Ontario today, these indicators along with others — such as low birth weight, avoidable hospitalizations, and health system expenditures — are already measured, and a close look at the impact of a BIG on those metrics must be included in a basic income pilot.
The connection between poverty and poor health worldwide is a well-established one. Impediments such as low education levels, poor diets, smoking and sporadic contact with healthcare providers are all factors contributing to this relationship, a fact brought home recently by The Hamilton Spectator's Steve Buist:
An analysis of provincial data shows cancer in patients from poorer parts of Hamilton is more advanced by the time the disease is detected. The findings raise questions about access to health care, patient education, screening programs and the gap between rich and poor.
The statistics are telling:
The Spectator's data analysis shows that the lower part of the former City of Hamilton had 20 per cent more diagnoses than would be expected based on population.

Meanwhile, the five suburbs of Stoney Creek, Ancaster, Dundas, Flamborough and Glanbrook had about 12 per cent fewer Stage IV cancers than would be expected based on population.
The reason for this disparity is not hard to fathom. Says lung cancer specialist Dr. Peter Ellis:
"We know in general that people who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have delayed access to health care," said Ellis. "These people tend to delay seeing a doctor, they don't necessarily understand some of the symptoms they see, they may be less inclined to undertake screening behaviour.

"If you don't necessarily have access to a family doctor, if your way of dealing with problems is to present to the emergency department or some sort of urgent care — which certainly happens more in those lower socioeconomic areas — then you're not going to get the continuity of care.
While a guaranteed annual income would hardly be an instant panacea, over time, as evidenced by the Dauphin data, improvements in a variety of outcomes would, it appears, be inevitable. All that is missing so far is a consistent political will.

Can our 'leaders' rise to the occasion?


  1. I think it's something we have to accept. Like almost everything else in our society, incremental change is no longer working. We need new ways that, in some cases, may be the social equivalent of geo-engineering. Would that we had some leader of vision.

    BTW, Lorne, what's your take on ProgBlog? It's been the better part of two weeks and Scott Tribe isn't posting any updates on his Facebook page. It's telling how the notionally progressive blogosphere has gone dark. It's getting down to you, Owen, Simon, Greg Fingas (Accidental Deliberations) and yours truly. I wonder how many are aware of CanProg.

    1. Since Progressive Bloggers went down, I have noticed a drop in my onsite visits. While I like to keep track of readership, it is more difficult to do with only Canadian Progressives as aggregator, since one can read the majority of posts there rather than make a visit to the blogs. I am as puzzled as you about Scott's aggregating site, Mound. I wonder if it is just too much trouble to try to rebuild it?

  2. No way to tell, Lorne. I did just try to access Kinsella's site again and Norton security kept me out, again. There's no way of knowing if there's any link but it does seem curious.