In the summer of 2018, the province of BC announced that it was putting together an expert committee to study whether a basic income could reduce poverty and address the changes that will be brought on by emerging economic conditions.
The committee is tasked with assessing whether the implementation of a basic income in BC is feasible and whether basic income principles can be relied on to improve our current income and social support system.
It is clear that a basic income system must be grounded in a human rights foundation, which includes income rates set at a level high enough for people to live with dignity
What is Basic Income?
Basic income refers to a system where governments provide unconditional and consistent payments to eligible individuals in an effort to ensure that everyone has a minimum income level regardless of employment status.
The idea of a basic income received much attention following the 2008 financial crisis as a potential solution to widespread poverty, economic inequality, and job loss caused by automation.
In fact, governments around the world have been testing the feasibility of basic income both through pilot projects—including ones in Ontario and Quebec—and proposals for a permanent universal basic income, as was put up for a referendum in Switzerland in 2016.
Basic income means different things to different people. On one hand, it could be part of a comprehensive approach to addressing poverty. On the other, it could be a way to reduce public spending in social services.
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The answers to questions about how much income, to whom, and how are critical indicators of whether a specific basic income system will in fact address poverty and inequality.
It is clear that a basic income system must be grounded in a human rights foundation, which includes income rates set at a level high enough for people to live with dignity.
Addressing Poverty and Inequality
In BC, like elsewhere around the world, economic insecurity disproportionately impacts women and those facing interlocking forms of marginalization.
About 13% of BC women live in poverty. The disparity is even more pronounced for Indigenous women: 31% of First Nations women and 33% of Inuit women in BC live in poverty. Furthermore, it has been estimated that 25-40% of LGBTQIA2S+ youth in Canada are homeless.
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One of the root causes of the disproportionate amount of economic insecurity experienced by women is the gendered division of labour. Women often perform significantly more unpaid work than men, women’s work is often undervalued, women face statistical discrimination when in the labour market, and women are often overrepresented in precarious and low-wage employment.
This gendered division of labour and its ensuing impact on women’s economic security means that women, particularly those facing intersecting forms of discrimination, are both more likely to benefit from the implementation of an adequate basic income framework as well as more likely to experience basic income differently than men.
[A] basic income system should be implemented within a comprehensive, accountable poverty reduction plan and not as a cost-saving mechanism.
Most importantly, if a basic income were introduced, people most vulnerable to living in poverty, including single mothers, women with disabilities, LGBTQIA2S+ people, and immigrant and refugee women, would likely experience a net increase in their personal income. Hopefully, many of them would be lifted out of poverty.
A basic income would also attach value to unpaid work by providing financial compensation to women who do not participate in paid labour or who only work part-time to accommodate their other responsibilities.
Because basic income is allotted to individuals rather than households (as is the case for income assistance), a liveable basic income could help ameliorate gendered power imbalances within relationships and, consequently, increase women’s ability to exit or avoid unhealthy or unsafe relationships.
For single mothers, a basic income could help ameliorate the poverty and unemployment ‘trap’ that arises when they are solely responsible for both child care and drawing an income.
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In contrast, some early research on gender equality and on this system has indicated that basic income alone may not be able to fully address gender inequality and may even exacerbate it by reinforcing the gendered division of labour.
The research indicates that the extent to which basic income can advance economic equality for women and other people experiencing gender-based discrimination will depend on additional measures that are implemented simultaneously.
Key Considerations for Basic Income in BC
Here are a few measures West Coast LEAF recommended in our submissions to the expert committee assessing the feasibility of a basic income in BC:
-For starters, a basic income system should be implemented within a comprehensive, accountable poverty reduction plan and not as a cost-saving mechanism.
A significantly more robust anti-poverty and substantive equality approach is required to address a socioeconomic system built on patriarchy, colonialism, racism, and capitalism.
-A basic income framework should also be harmonized with provincial and federal family law legislation to ensure that it does not result in a clawback to other benefits that aim to reduce women’s systemic inequality, including spousal support, child support, and property division. In order to fully realize the progressive aims of the Family Law Act, the province must invest in legal aid, as well as training for family law system actors.
-If BC is to implement basic income, it should also invest in a proactive pay equity system that includes a stand-alone proactive pay equity legislation and pay transparency legislation. Without addressing the gendered and racialized wage gap, basic income is unlikely to fully address the economic inequality experienced by women and other people facing gender-based discrimination.
-Lastly, there is a need for a shift in our shared understanding of labour that accounts for the many hours of unpaid labour performed primarily by women. The prevailing expectation that working 37.5 or 40 hours per week allows workers the opportunity to fulfil their daily personal and familial obligations fail to recognize the extensive unpaid labour that keeps families and communities together and thriving. If we are truly committed to achieving economic equality, we must also consider how to reduce the expected hours of paid work and encourage more flexible working schedules without compromising people’s ability to provide for their families.
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While there are benefits to implementing a basic income system, income payments alone will not address the systemic poverty and inequality faced by marginalized communities across BC. A significantly more robust anti-poverty and substantive equality approach is required to address a socioeconomic system built on patriarchy, colonialism, racism, and capitalism.
Like most things in life, basic income is not the magic potion that will immediately achieve an equal and just society. Rather, it is one small part in the cocktail of programs needed to fundamentally restructure our socioeconomic system so that it works for everyone and not just the lucky, privileged few.
Elba Bendo is the Director of Law Reform at West Coast LEAF. She comes to feminist legal advocacy following work as a labour lawyer and identifies closely with transnational feminism. In her free time, Elba enjoys traveling, reading (particularly post-modern fiction) and has recently taken on learning how to dance salsa.
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