Baby steps* to a guaranteed income: the July 7th meeting in Ottawa on guaranteed income

by C. L'Hirondelle, August 2007

On July 7th, there was a small, unfunded meeting in Ottawa with a huge topic: guaranteed income. The National Anti-Poverty Organization (NAPO) invited 40 people from across Canada to this meeting with 27 people attending: 12 from the NAPO board as well as reps from the NDP, the Greens, the nurses association, women's groups, ACORN (organizing low-wage workers), the Social Planning and Research Council of BC (SPARC) and the National Council on Welfare. Members of organized labour were invited but did not attend.

While massive amounts of resources have been fruitlessly devoted to economic and social policy analysis, the small number of guaranteed income proponents have had to organize with almost no funding. It is not surprising that this was the first such national meeting to happen in Canada since the 1970's when guaranteed income was on the agenda of most social justice groups. Proponents in the US included Martin Luther King Jr., Buckminster Fuller and Robert Theobald and in Canada the Royal Commission on the Status of Women and Pierre Berton. More recently, the National Council on Welfare's 2006 online survey with 5000 respondents ranked Guaranteed Livable Income as the number one solution to poverty in Canada.

Out of the tightly structured one day meeting formed a national working group on guaranteed income. Unlike most other parts of Canada, in Victoria there have been meetings on guaranteed income for almost a decade. In 1999 a series of meetings on the "Welfarce System" created a focus on the need for guaranteed income and also on the need for a name change: from Guaranteed Annual Income to Guaranteed Livable Income. "Livable" was emphasized due to its strong, positive connotations similar to the idea of a "living wage". In 2003, a handful of us formed Livable Income For Everyone (LIFE) with the mission to see Guaranteed Livable Income in every country in the world.

Because we have been organizing on this issue in Victoria for some time, there is more familiarity with arguments for and against guaranteed income, and with the importance of two essential elements of any guaranteed income discussion: money and work. Both words have society gripped by the throat, yet there is little understanding of where money comes from, what gives money its value or how the money supply is determined. People's understanding of work goes back to the Calvinist work ethic some 500 years ago, yet this emotional/moral definition of work does not fit with automation, work harmful to the environment, or unpaid care work (more and more of an issue with dropping birth rates and higher needs for elder care).   Nor does it take into account that the current economic system with its widening global wealth gap is inexorably going to lead to war. Even conservative senator Hugh Segal is advocating the need for basic income internationally for this reason. (Relative Poverty -- It Can't Be Erased, But It Must Be Addressed, At Home And Abroad, by Hugh Segal, Policy Options,August 2004)

Because of time constraints (due to no funding) these topics could not be adequately addressed on July 7th. When I brought up the issue of money, only one person (later) asked for more information; others indicated we shouldn't talk about money at all. Another puzzling omission was lack of reference to the Women's Economic Justice Report on Guaranteed Livable Income-one of only 3 recent projects in Canada on this topic (the other two being a project examining data from the 1970's Manitoba Mincome and a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives paper on guaranteed income due out this fall -- their first ever paper on this topic.)

This omission is odd since it indicates people have been doing little research on guaranteed income and that they see it as something similar to, but better than, welfare. And the fundamental rationale for welfare is that poor people--women and children making up the majority--cause poverty. Even people living in poverty blame themselves for their poverty and are devastated by debilitating levels of shame. However, LIFE's research shows that poor people have not caused poverty, poor mothers and children have not caused poverty, and in fact they are needed by the economic system to function.

Another issue without time for discussion was on terminology: some people want to stick with "Adequate" income or "Basic" income and do not want to use "livable" income. Yet, imagine if health benefits were two-tiered: "adequate" and "livable"? Which would you want? Michael Moore in his movie "Sicko" shows what happens without livable universal health benefits: you die. Choosing "adequate" or "basic" over "livable" is acquiescing to the idea that poor people cause poverty and don't deserve "livable" income.

Yet all local guaranteed income activists I have spoken to since returning from the Ottawa meeting have reiterated the importance of the word "livable" because it means "enough to live on." After all, who would say they want an "adequate" life as opposed to a "livable" life? The reason to opt for a weaker sounding word could only be fear of offending rich people--who make up but a tiny percentage of world population. (Note how Al Gore and Michael Moore have come under malicious attack for bringing up "inconvenient" facts.)   On the other hand, no one worries about offending poor people because they are seen as being lazy and immoral (the only possible reason society would allow millions of people to die from poverty in the midst of plenty).

Some of the attendees at the July 7th meeting urged a cautious approach to advocating guaranteed income, as in 'this is going to take a long time.' The fact that this idea has been advocated as far back as Thomas Paine (and likely earlier than that) does not seem to register that it has already been "a long time." Nor does it register that society has voted many millions of people in the world a guaranteed livable income already (people who do not have to sell a product in the market to get money to live).

A common outburst heard at anti-poverty meetings is: "They want me to die." How can anyone justify telling people that yes, you will have to die, while we take our time designing the perfect inoffensive guaranteed income. Until there is funding so people without livable incomes can participate in meetings about Guaranteed Livable Income, the guaranteed income movement in Canada will be dominated by the baby-steps forever approach. (There may even be another tier added to the poverty industrial complex for the "long time" approach to guaranteed income.)

An economic system that depends on forced production and forced consumption to keep going is doomed to fail, but it may do irreparable harm to humans and other life forms in the process. No less that Martin Luther King and Gandhi identified poverty as the number one problem in the world. Now we also face ecological crisis because of fatally flawed economic growth policies.

Guaranteed income addresses both: no more poverty, and a way to escape from ecologically harmful economic practices. The need to make a strong case for guaranteed income is obvious. There is no reason to make a weak case for a guaranteed income especially because it means acquiescing to the idea that poor people cause their own poverty.

If you are one of the 10 million people with income under $20,000 per year (2004 Rev. Canada data), it is time to speak up. This way, the July 7th meeting could still become a strong first step to Canada finally joining the international movement for Guaranteed Livable Income.

A huge thank you to the Unitarians who generously sponsored me to attend this event.

Send your vision for guaranteed livable income to Livable Income For Everyone:

C. L'Hirondelle is a founding member of Livable Income For Everyone. Written with input from J.S. Larochelle.

*For a hilarious introduction to "babysteps" see the movie
"What about Bob"