Expert panel advises against universal basic income

Port Alberni, BC

An independent panel examining inequality and poverty in B.C. will continue to work with First Nations after handing a report to government that recommends against the idea of a universal basic income.

The expert panel on basic income was set up three years ago as part of a confidence and supply agreement with the B.C. Green Party during the 2017-2020 NDP minority government. In early February they weighed in, recommending against a universal income pilot project and in favour of broad reforms to the existing social support system.

Universal basic income implies guaranteed income for all, although the idea is largely untested. The concept has gained renewed interest in the face of widespread unemployment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Spain, for example, introduced minimum basic income last spring.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how important a strong social safety net is to protect people and the economy,” said Nicholas Simons, minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, after receiving the panel findings. “The panel has made 65 recommendations on how to improve our existing support systems.”

Professors David Green, Lindsay Tedds and Jonathan Rhys Kesselman worked with a team of researchers for more than two years, examining not only basic income but also overarching considerations of inequality and poverty. Along with the research, workshops and consultations on poverty reduction strategies were held around the province, including in Port Alberni.

In its report, Covering All the Basics: Reforms for a More Just Society, the panel explains it struggled with how best to address questions of basic income and systemic reforms in an Indigenous context. Poverty rates are 60 per cent higher among people who identify as aboriginal and 40 per cent higher for visible minorities overall. Base line data to inform policy was limited.

“This reinforces the need for Indigenous people as a group to be given careful and inclusive consideration as we recognized with planning our work,” the report says. “The pandemic crisis prevented the collaborative process that had begun from being completed and we have recommended that it continue as a separate process.”

Through a partnership between the First Nations Leadership Council and B.C.’s Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, a research study is looking at income and social support issues unique to Indigenous populations. Prof. Anke Kessler of SFU leads the research project, the main goal of which is to gather data on Indigenous incomes. The research was delayed by the pandemic, however.

“Given the limitations we faced due to the pandemic, we recommend postponing any discussions or decisions until this aspect of the research can be fully completed through a process that includes respectful and inclusive consultation with Indigenous peoples,” the report notes.

No date was mentioned for completing this part of the panel’s work.

“There is ongoing research with the First Nations Leadership Council and we hope to release something later this year,” a ministry spokeswoman told Ha-Shilth-Sa.

Mariah Charleson, vice president of Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, said the panel’s inequality and poverty research is on their radar but there is a general sense that enough reports have been done.

“As First Nations, we’ve been studied enough, we have enough reports,” Charleson said, citing reports on the UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous People, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and most recently, on systemic racism in the province’s health care.

What’s lacking is political accountability and a failure on the part of governments to follow through with implementing recommendations, she said.

“We know their value and we want to see action on these documents,” Charleson said.

Despite its rejection of universal basic income, the panel’s initial findings were welcomed last week by Green Party MLAs, who urged swift adoption of the recommendations to help people cope with worsening conditions. Basic income for people with disabilities, youth aging out of care and women fleeing violence, along with a permanent supplement for emergency income assistance — are needed more urgently now due to the pandemic, said Green Leader Sonia Furstenau.

“There is no time to waste,” she said. “Many British Columbians were feeling left behind and left out of the benefits of our economy well before the pandemic hit last year. COVID-19 has worsened inequality in our society and left far more people facing serious economic insecurity.”

Other panel recommendations include:

  • Reforming temporary assistance
  • Providing extended health-care benefits to all low-income individuals.
  • Providing housing support to all low-income renters.
  • Improving support for low-income families with children.
  • Enhancing financial and support services for people with disabilities, young adults and people fleeing violence.

While  basic income would have some of the beneficial effects that proponents claim, there are more direct ways to achieve the same effects, the panel concluded.

“We believe that it would be more effective in general to address these issues directly, and that a combination of cash transfers and basic services reformed to better align with our justice-based objective would be a better approach,” the report states.

In order to provide tax revenue to pay for reforms, the panel recommends elimination of the provincial homeowners grant, which would yield about $800 million annually.

A pledge made in the 2017 confidence and supply agreement between the NDP minority government and the Green Party demanded a multi-faceted poverty reduction strategy addressing causes of homelessness and including a review of basic income.

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