Thursday, December 31, 2015

Where Is Help To Be Found?

Over the past several weeks I have been reading a number of letters to the editor from 'concerned' citizens about the arrival of Syrian refugees in Canada. Some offer a racist perspective thinly disguised as concern for our fellow Canadians (Instead of helping those people, shouldn't we be dealing with our own homeless?) while others are genuine and heartfelt, happy that we are helping those who have suffered so much thanks to a civil war not of their own making, but also wondering why we can't be doing the same for our fellow Canadians who toil away in desperate situations, often despite their best efforts to get off the street, get jobs and housing, etc. And that is a good question indeed.

Contrary to what some would like to think, it is not simply the poorly educated who are often in fairly desperate straits. As I have written more than once on this blog, the precariat is growing in number, a fact that I was once again reminded of this morning in an article about Toronto's library workers:
Jobs have been slashed by 17 per cent since 1998, according to the city’s library worker union, despite a 30 per cent increase in circulation. And while the number of public library managers on the Sunshine List has skyrocketed, around 50 per cent of non-management library jobs are part time — leaving many strapped with irregular hours and limited access to benefits and pensions.

With good job creation a staple of the City of Toronto’s proposed poverty reduction strategy, library workers say the city needs to start by looking at its own standards.
While there will always be those who insist on disdaining unions, more out of envy than anything else, the above amply illustrates that having a unionized job offers only limited protection against privation and the vagaries of the workplace. So where does a possible answer lie?

The notion of a guaranteed annual income is once more gaining traction.
At a Montreal convention in 2014 when the Liberal party was a lowly third power in Parliament, its members passed Policy Resolution 100, pledging to create a “Basic Annual Income” to solve problems in the social safety net, from pension risk to seasonal worker benefits.

That promise, to guarantee a minimum income, has a new urgency entering 2016, as the new Liberal majority government brings that platform to life in a country clamouring for new ways to manage welfare and benefits.
While some see it as simply a program that would discourage people from working, the fact is that it has a myriad of benefits that makes it attractive to those on both ends of the political spectrum:
Evelyn Forget, one of the few researchers to have actually studied the policy in the wild, described guaranteed basic income as an idea whose time has come, and “definitely doable.”

One popular version of the idea works like a refundable tax credit. “If an individual has no income from any source at all, they receive a basic entitlement,” Forget wrote in an op-ed this year. “As earned income increases, the benefit declines, but less than proportionately. As a result, low-income earners receive partial benefits so that they aren’t worse off than they would have been if they had quit their jobs and relied solely on income assistance. This means that there is always an incentive to work, and people who work are always better off than they would be if they didn’t work.”
And there have been some surprising enthusiasts of the concept:
It has had proponents such as Milton Friedman, the iconic free marketeer who liked it as a simplification of welfare, and leading Canadian Tories from Robert Stanfield to Hugh Segal. No less a neo-con pair than Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney once oversaw a mincome pilot project for the Nixon White House, aimed at measuring labour market reactions.
Lest we forget, there was an experiment conducted in the 1970's in Dauphin, Manitoba which some very encouraging results. Evelyn Forget was
the University of Manitoba economist who analyzed data from a pilot program during the 1970s, where everyone in Dauphin, Man., was guaranteed a “mincome” as a test case. The program ended without an official final analysis, but Forget did her own and found minor decreases in work effort but larger benefits on various social indicators, from hospitalizations to educational attainment.

The results suggested to her that a national mincome could improve health and social outcomes at the community level.
Is a guaranteed annual income a means of addressing the growing income gap in Canada, a way of starting to rebalance the disproportionate transfer of wealth to the few at the expense of the many? Perhaps, although the one quibble I have with it is the possibility that it could ultimately work against the development of fairer minimum wages and labour laws to protect workers more than they are today. Indeed, would it become essentially a subsidy to business, who could justify ongoing low wages by pointing out the safety net provided by a guaranteed annual income?

I don't have the answers, but surely something other than the current sad status quo is needed.


  1. Lorne, I think what you're talking about will demand deep reform of our political, economic and even social models. I don't need to tell you how dysfunctional we've become. This is what led to the lingering death of the middle class and the rise of the precariat. That's a downhill tumble and it only ends with a good outcome when we choose to get off that damned slope.

    We have to cut the tentacles of globalism that power the neoliberal hold on our politics and our economy. It's inflicting enormous damage on us and it won't get better until we extract ourselves from it. What holds us back is that it means we'll suffer for it, temporarily. You have to pay upfront with a little pain if you want the mid- to long-term gain.

    In the New Year, pick up a copy of John Ralston Saul's "The Collapse of Globalism." You'll actually find it as inspiring as it is enlightening. I know you'll enjoy it.



    1. Thanks for the recommendation, Mound. I will check it out. All the best in 2016, and let's hope that a a new way of looking at things will emerge.

  2. Lorne, l wish you a Happy New Year.

    I am glad that Canada is helping refugees. I hope the turmoil will end in the Middle East.

    I also hope that Trump will be dumped as a presidential candidate. U.S. and the world does not need this clown.

    1. Happy New Year, LD. I share your hopes for a better future.