The idea of an unconditional monthly income for all Albertans who need this kind of support sounded good to many of the women who turned up for our monthly social issues discussion in October last year. Still, many questions were raised. “Is it supposed to replace every other income support program?” “How do we pay for it?” “Is it actually good for women?” “Would it be enough to live on?”
The idea of government providing an income to families or individuals without any conditions has received increasing local, provincial, national and international attention. It’s no wonder, the rise of precarious and part-time employment, technological change transforming the world of work, and the ups and downs associated with a resource economy all contribute to a new socio-economic landscape in which many Albertans and Canadians are not sharing in the comparative prosperity and economic gains achieved over the last three decades (University of Waterloo, 2016). Over that period, income inequality has grown, poverty rates have persisted among some at-risk groups, such as lone mothers and their children, and social assistance – the income support of last resort for many vulnerable groups – has hovered at much below the poverty levels, with the system that delivers it seen as too complex and intrusive.
With all this in mind, the Women’s Centre sees great potential in a basic income guarantee (BIG) as a tool for reducing poverty and income inequality. Understood as a regular predictable income for all, unconditionally guaranteed by government, and enough to provide for basic needs and enable participation in the community, it can also serve to recognize the social and economic value of unpaid work, most of it performed by women. Still, there are important conditions that would have to be met in order for it to fulfill that potential. Informed by discussions within our Women’s Centre community, we have been seeking to provide a gender lens to the ongoing basic income conversation.
In our own position on basic income, and in our work with community partners in a Calgary-based action group advocating for basic income, we have identified these as the key principles for designing a basic income guarantee that would be truly effective at reducing all inequalities, including gender inequality:
- A basic income is available to everyone who needs it (i.e. falls below a certain income), with no eligibility criteria.
- It should be set at a level that means people can provide for their basic needs and participate in their communities.
- No one should be worse off than they were on another type of support, and it should have a positive overall impact on poverty and on key at-risk groups (for example, lone mothers, low-income elderly and Indigenous women).
- It is part of the safety net system and does not replace existing social support programs (such as those for victims of domestic violence, the elderly, or persons with mental health issues).
- The entitlement to and payment of a BIG should be on an individual basis, to ensure an autonomous guaranteed income for women.
- Its introduction should not be an excuse to do away with existing labour rights and regulations, including existing commitments to minimum wage increases.
The time for basic income is now: momentum has been built up by the increasing complexity and inadequacy of our welfare system, precariousness of work, and technological change, which will make our income inequality worse in the years to come. We know that poverty is not only about income, but it is also always about income. A basic income guarantee will not eliminate root causes of gender inequality, or solve all social problems, but if designed well, it could be a common-sense policy that could ensure all Canadians are free of income poverty and can build on that foundation to create more prosperous lives for themselves, their families and communities.