Debate about establishing a basic income guarantee has moved to the forefront in recent discussions of income policy in Canada and in many places around the world. The “basic income debate” is not simply between those who oppose and those who support establishing basic income policies. The conversation involves much more complex analyses of poverty, the changing nature of work and, more broadly, the actions needed to change fundamental directions in social and economic policy for the public good. As such, the idea of a basic or guaranteed income simultaneously promises and challenges progressive reimaginings of our economic status quo.
One of the biggest selling points for basic income has been its claim to wide-ranging support across the political spectrum. However, the debate over basic income is as much ideological as it is economic. A review of academic and popular literature indicates that, far from an emerging consensus about basic income, the perspectives from the left and right represent oppositional positions in their goals, assumptions, and preferred social/economic policy directions. In short, there is unlikely to be any acceptable middle ground. The future of political action and policy development on basic income may be a brewing storm.
This report provides an overview of basic income with a focus on the Albertan context. After outlining some of the diverse definitions of “basic income,” the report investigates how motives and opportunities for basic income vary across the political spectrum. We then review the mechanisms by which different scholars recommend providing a basic income, including through tax measures, negative income tax, and other financial tools. Overviews of basic income pilot projects in Manitoba and Ontario clarify political lessons that should inform an Albertan approach to basic income. Further, we consider basic income at the intersections of gender and decolonization to demonstrate how basic income can complicate, and redress, axes of oppression that go beyond low incomes. The report asks what considerations must be made for future economic and social policy, and whether some form of basic income can—or even should—be part of that future.
Much of the recent commentary surrounding basic income centres on the changing nature of work, advancing basic income as a possible response to increasing levels of insecure, part-time and temporary employment, labour market restructuring, and job loss due to automation. Facing declining job prospects in the fossil fuel industry, Albertan workers stand to benefit from a basic income that could compensate care and community work, and buffer against job loss and precarity. This report considers basic income as one way among many to address the current challenges arising from economic and social inequality.
This research finds:
- Basic income is popular because it is an ambiguous term, championed by those with diverse—and at times opposing—agendas and interests
- While some models of basic income are more progressive than others, there is no guarantee that any particular basic income model will be transformative in its application
- A basic income would likely benefit very-low-income Albertans. However, basic income in and of itself does not adequately address the root causes of poverty and inequality that harm low-income people.
This report recommends implementing a livable basic income in Alberta, sufficient to meet the basic needs of people with no other source of income. However, a basic income on its own is insufficient for assuring long-term poverty elimination without a suite of other policy and social changes, including:
- developing broad social and political consensus that an Albertan basic income is intended to be sufficient to meet basic needs, without conditionality based on job seeking, or other characteristics besides need,
- reforming tax and royalty rates to address revenue gaps, and reinvesting in the Heritage Savings Trust Fund,
- creating long-term, low-carbon, unionized jobs by leveraging government procurement and “green” infrastructure projects to support resource workers, and equity-seeking groups,
- reinforcing universally delivered public services like health care and education that address root causes of poverty. Expanding the social safety net to include pharmacare, universal dental care, and a greater swath of mental health services,
- implementing strong emissions restrictions, and climate policy to promote a sustainable, livable future in Alberta,
decolonizing public services, industry, and policymaking, and
- establishing rent control so that increased incomes from a basic income plan can stay in the hands of low-income Albertans.
Any and all of these initiatives could potentially impact poverty levels, income inequality, and quality of life. In combination with a basic income, Alberta stands to ensure a sustainable and prosperous future for generations to come.