Why Women Would Gain
from a Guaranteed Livable Income

by C.A. L'Hirondelle
Published in the Canadian Woman Studies Journal Dec. 2004

With increasing numbers of women around the world being pushed into ever deeper poverty--70 percent of people living in abject poverty in the world are women (United Nations Development Programme 1999)-- it is clear that women would have the most to gain from a universal Guaranteed Livable Income.

Locally, women in the Victoria area are more likely to be poor than men; women accounted for more of the poor population in their youth and senior years; women in poverty performed more unpaid childcare and housework than men and non poor women (Christal Engleder and Marge Reitsma-Street, Capital Urban Poverty Project, 2000 from Stats Canada 1996 data).

These findings emphasize the need to address the feminization of poverty. Women are poor largely because of one factor: the market system insists that mothers are not economically productive members of society, and, therefore, they do not get paid a salary. However, the solution cannot be a Wages-for-housework campaign -- this would not address the needs of single women. Only a universal GLI would create economic democracy and justice from which women and children would especially benefit.

The idea of guaranteed income has been around for over 100 years and has had proponents and opponents on all sides of the political spectrum. It has been called a guaranteed annual income, citizen's dividend, negative income tax and a basic income guarantee (BIG). Around the world, guaranteed income is being promoted as a practical, dignified and low-cost way to meet people's basic needs for health and security.

Canadian Basic Income Guarantee proponent Sally Lerner notes that rapid technological change, downsizing, mechanization, and temp work create people who earn less than needed to participate fully in society. She views a guaranteed income as a just means to underpin the peaceful transition to a new era of less traditional employment. (Sally Lerner, Basic Income: Economic Security for All Canadians, Between The Lines, 1999)

In Victoria BC, the Status of Women Action Group (SWAG) advocates a universal guaranteed livable income due to an ever-growing stream of crisis, despair and even tragedy in women's lives because they lack the income to meet their basic needs and the needs of their children. Increasing numbers of low-income women have been forced into the sex trade to pay the bills and feed their kids. This trend was noticed in both Victoria and Vancouver since the welfare cuts in 2002.

The solution to social and economic problems put forward by both the political right and left is to that everyone should be able to get a living wage job through more economic growth. However, there is simply no evidence to support this premise.

The economic growth 'solution' does not acknowledge the fact that parents who are raising young children are already working very hard at an intense, time consuming and high stress job. Raising the next generation is essential to the health of society, it is work that cannot be abandoned, yet it is work that is currently a huge financial sacrifice for those who do it (though you may be paid with hugs and affection, hugs do not pay the rent).

The idea that you can work hard and get ahead is only true if you are being paid. If you work hard at unpaid work you get financially behind, not ahead. "Motherhood is the single biggest risk factor for poverty in old age. Individuals who assume the role of nurturer are punished and discouraged from performing the very tasks that everyone agrees are essential." writes Ann Crittenden in her book The Price of Motherhood (Henry Holt, 2001)"

How & why of a GLI:

To work, a guaranteed income program would have to be universal for women, children and men and it would have to be at a level high enough to meet a person's needs for food, shelter, health and dental care and other things necessary to a healthy life. Thus it should be called a Guaranteed "Livable" Income.

It would replace the many costly income support programs now in place and would remove the stigmatization of the welfare system. It would also not penalize people if they find short term employment (Most welfare law deducts earnings dollar for dollar). A progressive tax system would mean that those whose earnings are high would return the guaranteed income through their taxes (similar to the old family allowance system).

A guaranteed income system would be less costly than allowing people to live in poverty. One study has shown that it costs $30,000 to $40,000 for one homeless person per year for service and emergency shelter costs with an average of $11,410 being spent just on criminal justice costs. (Volume 3, Costs of Homelessness in British Columbia, B.C. Government 2001)

In addition, there are vast amounts of research that show the biggest determinant of health is income. The Canadian Public Health Association document "Health Impacts of Social and Economic Conditions" (1997) states: "the pathways between socioeconomic status and health are well documented. The path that leads from poverty to poor nutrition and on to infectious diseases and chronic conditions is generally well understood."

Dr. Dennis Raphael from York University raised the alarm that "Poverty, not smoking, a bad diet or lack of exercise is the single best predictor of heart disease, and that because of social spending cuts, what the [Ontario] provincial government is doing to low-income families is like what they did to water." (A reference to funding cuts that led to the Walkerton tragedy.) (Ian Elliot, Kingston Whig-Standard, Sept. 25, 2002 "Governments ignoring link between poverty and disease")

While many people will say we cannot afford a guaranteed income, we cannot afford to do without it because of the high social and health costs of poverty.

Jobs for all is not the solution

The main argument against a guaranteed income is that no one needs an income guarantee program because everybody can meet their needs by getting a job. B.C.'s former welfare minister, Murray Coell, had asserted in 2001 that "a job is the best social safety net" to justify the provincial government's plan to cut single people off welfare after two years. (This policy was modified in 2004 to only cut off people not compliant with their compulsory 'employment plan').

Even those on the opposite side of the political spectrum have espoused the jobs-for-all solution to poverty. Jim Stanford, an economist for the Canadian Auto Workers, argues against a basic income program stating, "Progressives should be demanding a living wage for everyone." (The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, Nov. 2000)

Jean Swanson from End Legislated Poverty in Vancouver called the idea of a guaranteed income a "guaranteed disaster" on the basis that it would encourage employers to pay inadequate wages. ("GAI: Guaranteed Disaster?", Canadian Dimension, Dec. 94/jan95, Vol 28, Issue 6, p24)

All these arguments presuppose that the solution to poverty is full employment at living wages. However there is absolutely no evidence to show that this solution is possible or desirable.

The first staggering fact to digest is that almost half the world's population --2.8 billion people-- lives on less than $2 (U.S.) per day and 1.7 billion of those live on less than $1 per day (World Bank statistics). Add to that the increasing numbers of people living in poverty in developed countries and one quickly realizes that the only way to give all those people a living-wage job would be to have a monumental increase in consumption and production.

This would break the bank, so to speak, of the world's natural resources and would put an impossible strain on the environment to absorb ever more industrial waste. William Rees, an urban planner at the University of British Columbia, estimates that it requires four to six hectares of land to maintain the consumption level of the average person from a high-consumption country. However, worldwide (in 1990) there were only 1.7 hectares of ecologically productive land for each person.

In addition, there is nothing compelling industries or corporations to try to create more jobs. In fact, the opposite is true. There is more incentive for industries to reduce their workforces whenever possible either through replacing people with machines or by downsizing. David Noble summed this up in the title of his book: Progress Without People (Between the Lines, 1995).

Another major blind spot in this vision of full employment is that it does not differentiate between work that is beneficial to society and work that is harmful. So we end up with the bizarre reality that cigarette company executives who work very hard at addicting new generations to cigarettes are paid very big salaries while mothers who work very hard raising healthy children get paid no salary at all.

New Zealand author and activist Marilyn Waring is renowned for pointing out that under our current national accounting system, anything that raises the GDP, even if it is an oil spill, a car accident or any other calamity that generates measurable economic activity, is considered beneficial to the economy.

Many people work in industries that are damaging to our health or the health of the planet

In their book The Subsistence Perspective, Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen suggest we redefine our notion of productive work to include only work that "produces, maintains and enhances life." (pg.58)

Many others are also trying to envision an economic system that takes into account the needs of all living things and not just meeting the needs of a short term bottomline. Ecofeminist Mary Mellor calls this a move from a ME-economy to a WE-economy. Writer David Korten says that we need to change from a suicide economy to a living economy. I would call this a move from a death-cycle economy (where things that are damaging to life are counted as an economic benefit) to a life-cycle economy.

The only way to make such a monumental change, is if we have a transition period, and the best way to do that is by providing a universal guaranteed livable income, because it enables us to stop making economic decisions based on fear of poverty. Unlike our grandparents who met most of their needs directly from the land by farming, fishing and logging, we who live in industrialized countries need income to survive. One could imagine however, that many people with an income guarantee would minimize their monetary expenditures and would endeavour to barter and grow food for subsistence.

A guaranteed livable income should be looked at as a health initiative. Just as clean water and sanitation are recognized as essential in disease prevention, so should a guaranteed livable income be looked at as necessary to our physical and social health and the health of the planet.

A version of this article first published in March 2003 in the Victoria, BC, magazine Focus on Women (renamed "Focus" in 2004).