The Basics of Basic Income – Dr. Evelyn Forget

On Monday, October 5, 2020 groups from across Canada partnered together to host the first webinar in the series “The Basics of Basic Income.” 

We were honoured to have Dr. Evelyn Forget as the main presenter.

Dr. Evelyn Forget – The Basics of Basic Income – TRANSCRIPT

“Thank you very much, Alex, for that wonderful introduction. I am delighted to be joining you today from Treaty 1 Territory, from Winnipeg. I am honored to have been invited to this webinar because I think this is a wonderful opportunity to share ideas. I’ve been working on basic income for a long time and I look forward to learning from you today and working together as you develop this new disability benefit that everybody is looking forward to.

Let me start off with the wonderful and exciting announcement in the Throne Speech that there would be a new benefit for people with disabilities modelled on the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors.    What do we actually know about what that disability benefits going to look like? Very, very little. We don’t know whether it’s intended to replace provincial supports or supplement them. We don’t know how this benefit is going to interface with all of the existing federal, provincial and other programs out there. Things like the CPP, QPP, and other monetary benefits for people with disabilities like the medical expense deduction.  The question I think we’re all facing is if this proposed disability benefit is a step towards a basic income for people with disabilities? And if it is, is this going to work to the advantage of everyone with disabilities in Canada?  So, the question I think we’re facing as we go forward is how do we ensure that people with disabilities have access to all the support they require, in addition to a basic income?

I’d like to spend a little bit of time talking about what we mean by basic income because the words come to mean so many different things to so many different people.  Everybody who talks about basic income, agrees that basic income is intended to set a floor. It’s a promise that no matter what happens in your life, no matter what happens to the economy or to society, everyone will have access with enough money to live a modest but dignified life. Everybody agrees that it’s paid in the form of money, not directly in services, but at the same time, that a basic income is not a replacement for all the services that are necessary to live life in a high-income country like Canada.  Basic income complements public services.  We still need education, we still need public health care, we still need additional supports for people with disabilities. Basic Income should be available to low income workers as well as people who need income replacement. Perhaps most importantly, basic income is unconditional, it’s dependable, it’s reliable, and it won’t be withdrawn by the government because you’re late with the mountain of paperwork that you’re required to complete every month, or because you forget to report that you have a new roommate, or you’ve broken one of the other hundreds of regulations that govern existing income support programs.

Basic Income is imagined as a regular, predictable and unconditional payment that everyone would receive. All adults, whether you’re working or not working, whether your income is low or high. And that’s a very expensive proposition. But the idea is that the government would receive back some of the costs of delivering that basic income through the tax system, it would be a taxable benefit. That’s never gained a lot of traction – that is the version of basic income in Canada. In the Canadian Basic Income discussion, we usually think about basic income as being income tested. It could be modeled on the Guaranteed Income Supplement or the Canada Child Benefit. I think we’ve learned during the pandemic that there are some very simple ways of delivering these kinds of benefits. It could be easily delivered through online accounts, much like the CERB was delivered, people with no other income would receive the full benefit. But people with other incomes would receive a partial benefit. So, it would be reduced for people who are working, but by less than the amount people earn so wouldn’t disappear entirely. Canada’s at the forefront, really and knowing how this form of basic income would work.

We’ve had two major experiments in this country to determine what the impact would be on communities that were offered a basic income. The first time we tried to experiment with basic income, we introduced an experiment called Mincome in the mid 1970s. That experiment took place in the province of Manitoba. Some families in the city of Winnipeg and the entire community of a small prairie town called Dauphin, Manitoba, were offered access to a basic income. Some of these families received the money for a period of three years between 1975 and 1978. I only wonder why the government of Canada was running an experiment on basic income at the time? There was a recognition even in the 1970s, that income support programs in this country were inadequate, that we could do something better. But there was a real fear at the same time and the idea was that if you offer people a basic income, they would stop working. So, the purpose of Mincome was to find out whether people reduce the amount of work they do when they received a basic income. Now that program was rolled out the money was received by families for about three years. But a lot of things happened in the 1970s and one of the things that happened is the government changed. By the time the experiment ended, governments weren’t very interested in introducing a basic income anymore. So, the data was set aside for a very long period of time.

There was an analysis done in the 1980s that attempted to address the original question that Mincome was introduced to solve, and that was would people work less. It turned out that most people didn’t. Most people continued working when they received a basic income just as they had before. But they were two groups of people who did work less. The first were new mothers. Anybody on this call, who might be old enough to remember the 1970s might remember that maternity leave in the 1970s was four weeks and a lot of new mothers thought that a four-week parental leave was a bit miserly. They used the income support to buy themselves longer parental leaves. The other group of people who worked less were adolescent boys, boys between the ages of 15 and 19. That’s what we learned from Mincome and that’s where it sat for a long time.

About 10 years ago, I went looking for that data and I went back to look for it for a number of reasons. Mostly I wanted to know what happened to quality of life. What happened to people’s health when they received the basic income. I started with those young boys who worked less, and I found them in my data. The reason they worked less is because they were much more likely to stay in high school and to graduate. Instead of leaving school at the age of 16, and going to work, they graduated.  They went on in many cases to college and university and lived a different kind of a life.

My focus was really on health, physical and mental health and community health. One of the big findings was that hospitalization rates declined among people who received a basic income. In fact, hospitalization fell by eight and a half percent and that’s a pretty dramatic finding. When I look more closely, I found that a lot of the reason hospitalization rates declined was because of better mental health in the community.

We had a second experiment almost 40 years later. Some of you might remember the Ontario Basic Income Guarantee experiment that was introduced by the Kathleen Wynne government shortly before the most recent election and canceled shortly after.  It was cancelled almost before it began. But some researchers were able to go back to interview the people who participated in the experiment.  They told us the same thing that we’ve heard from other basic income experiments that have taken place in different countries all over the world. They reported better physical and mental health. They reported an ability to invest in education.  Many went to community college, they spent the money on better housing, better diets, children’s activities.

Every time we’ve introduced the basic income in an experiment, we’ve discovered the same things. People continue to work; physical and mental health improves and communities function better. It seems to work extremely well. From the perspective of the basic income community, we’ve always maintained the notion that basic income should be available to all residents of Canada. We see the disability community as being part of a larger Basic Income initiative.

We also recognize that people with disabilities have additional needs and additional expenses. So, what we would propose is that we’d have a basic income available to all residents in Canada with a basic income plus for people with disabilities and that has certain advantages. One of them is that it addresses the issue that many people have qualifying for disability support. It eliminates the stress that many people with invisible disabilities in the workplace face with disclosing or not disclosing the nature of their disability. But the additional costs associated with disability also have to be met, and they can be met through the healthcare system or through existing or modified programs. The end result of all of this should be more support for people with disabilities. I don’t think anybody questions that better income supports are essential for people with disabilities.

People with disabilities are among the lowest income category in Canada. Existing provincial income supports are programs of last resort and introduce a lot of additional difficulties. For people in Manitoba, there’s a long running court case that’s now going to the Supreme Court about whether or not an individual should be forced to take their Canada Pension at age 60 in order to move them on to the federal rules and reduce provincial responsibility.

Many people have been denied access to provincial disability support because of a spouse’s income or a partner’s income. Another issue that’s long standing with many of our disability supports at both the federal and the provincial level is the difficulty of qualification. For people with invisible disabilities in particular, people with mental health disabilities often have difficulty qualifying under provincial regulations. In many cases, it depends more on the skill of the practitioner completing the forms than it does on the nature of the disability, which of course leads to inequity. People with very similar disabilities might find themselves with very different levels of support.  One of the things we hear constantly is the difficulty and the necessity of having to be requalified for continued support. But one of the real difficulties for the basic income community, and when you start talking about what the nature of the disability benefits should look like, it’s how you ought to deal with the additional costs that are associated with disabilities. Those costs vary dramatically between individuals and they fall into two basic categories. There are specific costs that are associated with disability such as medication or assistive devices. Those can be and should be covered through a universal health care system. But there are other kinds of costs that are much more difficult to identify and qualify, and that differ dramatically between individuals. These are the costs that are associated with trying to live your life in a way that that makes it possible for you to live the best life possible. The need to live in an accessible apartment, for example, or the need to live in an urban center so that you have access to the supports that are required. Those pose additional costs and when we think about basic income, it’s usually these kinds of costs that are usually dealt with by adding an additional benefit for people with disabilities on top of the basic income amount. This is something that needs to be thought about much more clearly going forward.

One thing we can all acknowledge is that there is a patchwork of programs across the country supports available to people differ dramatically, depending on which province you live in. Some costs are covered, and they’re covered for everybody without an income test. Other costs are covered by people who receive provincial income assistance, but they’re not covered for low wage working people with disabilities. These might be things like pharmaceuticals, specific costs like special diets, or orthotics, testing supplies for people with diabetes, and so forth. The fact that these costs are covered by people on provincial disability, but not for people in the workforce creates a bit of a trap.  It creates a trap because if someone enters the workforce, they risk losing access to the supports. If their condition recurs, or worsens, they have to go through the entire qualification process again. The program itself prevents people from living their lives with the greatest freedom that they would have.

The question I would ask at this point is, wouldn’t it make sense to offer the supports to everyone who needs them based on the level of their income rather than its source?  To make these additional supports available to low income working people, as well as to people on provincial disability support. Basic Income would serve the needs of many people with disabilities; it would provide support for people to live a modest, dignified life. Ideally, it would reduce the burden associated with qualification. I’ve got a little asterisk beside that, because I think that’s a challenge going forward. How do we ensure that people have access to the programs that they require? A basic income not only replaces income for people who can’t work, it can top up low earnings in the workforce due to underemployment, and it can fill the gap when disabilities interfere with one’s ability to work.  But there are risks at the same time and I think that those risks are things that are probably at the top of your mind. You should think about how this disability benefits should be developed.

The message that’s got to be sitting at the top of everybody’s mind is the loss of existing benefits. We’ve all seen governments introduce one benefit at the cost of other programs that already exist. I don’t think anybody wants to see that happen. So how do we protect existing benefits as we move forward?   Another issue that’s been raised many times, is the potential loss of caseworker support. Basic income is just money. Do people need additional support from a caseworker? I think that we need to recognize, first of all, that much of the need for caseworker support under the existing system comes about because of the complexity and bureaucracy of the program. If the programs were simpler to access, there’d be much less need for caseworker support.   At the same time, some people do require additional assistance, but there’s a difference between offering someone assistance and making supports conditional on caseworker discretion.

So, what do we think about as we go forward? I’m just listing all kinds of things that you must be thinking about. Qualification. How do we ensure that people actually get access to the programs we need? How do we ensure that those supports are available to people who need them? How high should the basic income be? I’ve been reluctant to put a number on it as we go forward. But how much do people need to live a modest but dignified life? What does that mean? Nobody should be living in deep poverty. But what’s the appropriate amount? How should we be treating earned income or assets? Ensuring access to additional supports? The idea of introducing a new benefit is that people should be better off not worse off.  How do we make sure that is true for everybody so that nobody is left behind? Nobody is made worse. How would this proposed benefit interact with other programs? Financial support for families of children with complex needs, something we don’t deal with particularly well now, but we might want to think about doing a better job of as we move forward. Are there any existing income supports for people with disabilities that could be rolled into a basic income to simplify the bureaucracy and simplify the system? Most important of all, basic income is unconditional. Basic Income should be unconditional. How do we ensure that the system respects individual dignity?”