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Elizabeth May: Paying Everyone A Basic Income Will End Poverty AND Save Money

"This is a program that ensures that everyone can live with dignity."

This campaign season, HuffPost Canada is going past the sales pitch, away from the attacks, and beyond the ballot.

Our Beyond the Ballot series is deep diving into three major problems facing Canadians: climate change, housing insecurity, and elder care. This election is our opportunity to join forces and come up with solutions. In this installment we talk to Green Party Leader Elizabeth May about basic income, which ties into both housing and seniors issues.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May greets dignitaries before the first federal leaders debate on Aug. 6. (Photo: Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty)

Call it basic income, guaranteed annual income, negative income tax, or minimum income, it all essentially amounts to the same simple solution: eliminate poverty by giving people money.

The idea — supported by 46 per cent of Canadians according to one poll — has boosters across the political spectrum because it not only helps people, it can also save money by reducing bureaucracy and poverty-related health care and criminal justice expenses.

The Canadian Medical Association endorsed basic income this past summer and nearly 200 physicians signed a letter to Ontario's health minister calling for a pilot project because "income is the great divide when it comes to Canadians' health."

It's been attempted before, like Manitoba's pioneering "Mincome" experiment in the 1970s (read more about it here) where people who were living below the poverty line were given a no-strings-attached supplement.

Other approaches involve giving every single citizen a subsistence-level amount of money, and then having it gradually reduced and eventually eliminated at tax time in proportion to base income.

This is a preferred approach by some because it encourages people to work — especially those with part-time or minimum wage jobs — as they still receive some supplementary basic income payments on top of their own earnings up to a point. As well, it eliminates the complicated tax credits and bureaucratic costs of the current social assistance system because there are no eligibility requirements or surveillance required.

One of Canada's loudest proponents of basic income has been former Tory senator Hugh Segal. In a HuffPost blog in 2013, he wrote that we can't let "the ideological conceit that a rising tide lifts all boats obscure the hard reality that many Canadians have no boat or access to anyone who has ever had a boat."

Segal's views, however, have not been taken up by Conservative Leader Stephen Harper.

No mention in Liberal, NDP campaigns

The Liberal membership, meanwhile, passed a priority resolution last year calling for the party to "design and implement a Basic Annual Income." However, there is no mention of it in the Liberal's just-released election platform.

The federal NDP have been mum on the subject throughout the campaign, preferring instead to discuss a $15 minimum wage for federal workers — though there have been murmurs that Alberta's NDP government might give it a trial run with support from the mayors of Calgary and Edmonton.

The Green Party, however, has made basic income one of the most important planks of their platform, tying it to their anti-poverty efforts and their elder care strategy. Dubbing their version the "Guaranteed Livable Income" (GLI), the Greens would use "a single, universal, unconditional cash benefit delivered through the tax system" to replace the current complex system of federal and provincial support.

That means eliminating federal transfers for such programs as welfare, disability, seniors supplements, and child benefits. However, the proposed GLI would impact neither Employment Insurance or the Canada Pension Plan, which workers pay into, nor low-income subsidies for child care, social housing, or drug benefits.

The Greens would then give every Canadian a regular GLI payment and set a minimum income level just above the poverty line. After that point, the GLI would be gradually taxed back until it was eliminated at a ceiling of, say, $60,000.

(Photo: Shutterstock/Neale Cousland)

The Huffington Post Canada sat down with party leader Elizabeth May to discuss why providing a basic income to all Canadians would pay off for Canada.

Tell me about the Green Party's "guaranteed livable income"?

The goal is to make sure that no Canadian lives in poverty. Let's skip the steps that involve what I regard as a shame-based system. The current system is very inefficient economically as well as allowing people to live in poverty who shouldn't. We can actually have a society where no one lives in poverty.

But to get there from here, which is why we don't have it budgeted in the line-item budget, will require federal, provincial, municipal as well as First Nations, Inuit and Métis governments all working together to figure out exactly what programs we can wrap up.

We've been hearing a lot about a $15 minimum wage. What is your take on that as a way to combat poverty?

We do support a $15 minimum wage for workers under federal jurisdiction, and that's the same limitation that's on the NDP promise because the federal government doesn't regulate provincial minimum wage rates.

The fact is that most of the new jobs that are being created are precarious employment, part-time employment. At least once we have a guaranteed livable income, people in those kinds of jobs would keep that income, and not have it clawed back [like with welfare].

Right now where we're in a situation that's very worrying, where the highest wealth earners are at an increasing distance from the lowest. Eighty-six Canadian families have more combined wealth than 11.4 million Canadians at the bottom of the income pyramid. That's bad for everyone.

That's one of the points that we want to drive home: this isn't about some sort of gold-plated charity program. This is about the economic wealth and well-being of Canada as a whole. It will fix our health-care system, it will fix our criminal justice system. But more than that, it gives every Canadian kid a chance to succeed in life. Inter-generational poverty is something we have to address. It's much worse in the U.S. than it is here, but we are going in the wrong direction.

An aerial view of the city of Dauphin, Man., site of an experiment that provided cheques to the city's poorest to raise their incomes to a liveable wage. (Photo: Dauphin Economic Development/Facebook)

There are a couple ways of going about this. Your way is give money to everybody and then claw it back at tax time. The Mincome experiment topped up people below the poverty line. Why do you think the universal approach is better?

I don't like to use the term clawback, because that's just what happens to people now on welfare who, as they earn any income at all, have it pulled out of their welfare payments. That is extremely perverse.

We don't claw anything back. It's just that as people make more, they get into the range of being tax-paying citizens. It's a good thing to give it to everyone because we eliminate income splitting that Stephen Harper brought in and generally only benefits families that are better off. This is a program that ensures that everyone can live with dignity.

It is very efficient because it costs a lot of money to check up on single mothers to see if she moved in with her boyfriend. It makes much more sense to give everybody a cheque so that you have no economic poverty anymore. People who receive that money are spending that money, they are happy to go out and make more money. It could end the [under-the-table] economy, which is very damaging to the health of our overall economy, expand our tax base, and create greater economic opportunities.

You mentioned gold-plated charity programs, that's the argument against basic income. How do you combat that?

Back in 2006 we held a policy conference on poverty and invited some of the researchers who were part of that program in Manitoba years ago. They said basically what it comes down to, no matter how you study it, is that it's going to be a leap of faith that this is going to work, that it helps the society.

But they said what they experienced in Manitoba — of course, it was a little different because everyone understood it was a pilot project and wouldn't go on forever — was the vast majority of people in the Manitoba experiment used the money well. They went back to school, they improved their life prospects.

The pushback is usually that everybody's going to be just lazy and sit back and do nothing their whole life because the state is taking care of them. What they actually found was that that wasn't what people did. The question is what do we think of human nature?

If re-elected, your influence is going to be felt by working with other parties. This seems to be one of those solutions that has the potential to reach out to all parties because it saves money and it helps people. What's the backing like in Parliament?

There was a Senate committee that looked at poverty and, of course, the lead there was a former senator Hugh Segal. He was definitely progressive conservative. There is interest in the topic, we just don't have any other party other than the Green party espousing this.

We see our role as being a party prepared to bring forward ideas whose time has come. We brought forward pharmacare this election campaign when no one else was talking about it. I think it's important for us to be the party that raises the issue and creates the debate.

And then we're very happy to have other parties take our ideas and run with them.

Have you costed out what the savings would be?

It's in the billions. The number one social determinant of health is poverty. You eliminate poverty, you're saving the health-care system. There are [also] enormous levels of savings in the actual shutdown of bureaucracy that provide band-aid solutions to poverty instead of actually ending poverty.

The GLI is part of your National Seniors Strategy. How would this alleviate some of the pressure of this aging Boomer population on our social services?

Our seniors policy includes a lot of pieces, obviously. The guaranteed livable income would take some time to bring in so in the short-term we would increase the guaranteed income supplement. We want to make sure we have housing that meets the needs of seniors. In some cases that means you have to ensure that there are the supports, such as homecare workers so you can stay in your own home. For others, you need respite care for an aging partner who has dementia. There are a lot of elements to this that require being thoughtful about what seniors really need.

How long, if you can get everybody onside, would a basic income plan actually take to go into effect?

It depends on how quickly the provinces and municipalities decide that it makes sense for them. It could happen very, very quickly, because it does save everybody money. That's the key. Once it's in place, every level of government wins.

And that something you can't say about every problem fix.

Joshua Ostroff is a senior editor for HuffPost Canada.

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