The need for a guaranteed liveable income for all Canadians
March 7, 2017
The Honourable Senator Kim Pate :
Honourable senators, I am honoured to have the opportunity to speak to the motion of our colleague, Senator Eggleton, who last year tabled a motion in this place urging that the Senate encourage the federal government to sponsor and evaluate the cost and impact of implementing a national basic income program for the purpose of assisting Canadians to escape poverty.
I am strongly advocating for adequate income, not just a basic income.
As Senator Lankin most ably and thoroughly pointed out last week, many have come before us in calling attention to the need to remedy economic inequality.
Honourable senators, despite our constitution and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that guarantees equality of opportunity, as well as equality of access to resources and sharing of prosperity, these are not a reality for far too many in Canada.
In fact, in most communities, provinces and territories we see huge gaps between the most and the least privileged. These are gaps brought into sharp relief when we see them through intersectional lenses of race, sex and ability. According to Statistics Canada, there are currently one in seven Canadians living in poverty. Fifty-one per cent of First Nations children live in poverty, a rate rising to approximately 60 per cent for children who live with their equally poor families on reserves.
In 1966, with forward-looking intentions by the Canada Assistance Plan, the federal government created cost-sharing arrangements between Ottawa and the provinces and national standards for social assistance programs. However, in 1995, the Canada Assistance Plan was replaced by the Canada Health Transfer and Canada Social Transfer and the resulting evisceration of national standards for social assistance, health care and education has permitted provinces and territories to reduce social assistance rates to levels that many consider criminally low.
Nowhere in this country can people survive on social assistance unless they are doing something for which, if discovered, they could be penalized and even criminalized — not because the behaviour itself is necessarily considered criminal, but because the omission in terms of reporting it is punishable. Let me take this province of Ontario as an example. If, as a single able-bodied person, I was suddenly not in this job but in need of social assistance, I would receive $706 per month — $330 for basic needs and only $376 per month for shelter.
I invite you all to imagine trying to survive on that income alone.
By comparison, we are spending a minimum of $10,000 — and for women as much as $30,000 or more — per month to jail people. That's a lot of money. Most women are criminalized and jailed as a result of their responses to past trauma and their attempts to negotiate poverty.
By virtually eliminating the concept of social welfare and replacing it with inadequate financial assistance — monthly payments that are impossible to live on without supplementation, which by its very act amounts to breach of the assistance rules — we have effectively created groups of poor people who are infinitely criminalizable.
Honourable senators, the human, social and financial costs do not stop here. How many of you know the answer to this question: When is a loan considered income? The answer: When you are poor and on social assistance.
Professor Margaret Little of Queen's University has numerous examples of people, especially single moms, being criminalized for not reporting things like gifts of groceries from parents and grandparents. Imagine losing your basic income because you accept one bag of food valued at $59 and you don't report it. There are many more examples in her book and I am happy to share it with any senators who are interested in it. These are actual decisions that have been taken against people trying to negotiate impossibly inadequate financial circumstances, and if you lose assistance, you can't feed yourself. If you cannot feed yourself, you cannot feed your children. And if you cannot feed your children, you will also likely lose your children. How on earth can this be seen as in any way being beneficial to any of us and how can we justify these decisions?
It may seem unfathomable to contemplate, but it is the reality for far too many. It is part of the reason that so many people struggle to extricate themselves from poverty and why we have now relegated far too many in this country to intergenerational poverty.
Honourable senators, add to this the reality that there are currently about 4 million people in Canada in need of decent affordable housing. And here I wish to thank the work of Senator Dyck, Senator Patterson and all members of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples for the report we just heard about, tellingly titled We Can Do Better. And in Canada we most certainly can, and we must.
Food banks, which were implemented as a temporary measure — and it must be stressed they were implemented as a temporary stopgap measure several decades ago — are now a necessity for most people on assistance. Last year in 2016 alone, nearly a million Canadians — 863,492 — were documented to have been assisted by food banks. Poverty is devastating to those who are poor and massively expensive to Canadian society.
What could a guaranteed livable annual income mean to Canadians? It could mean the difference between living with daily abuse and homelessness. It could be mean the difference between not having to sell your body to make the rent or feed the children. It could mean the difference between not having to carry packages across communities or across borders to make ends meet. It could mean the difference between furthering one's education to get a leg up and out of poverty. It could mean the difference between investing in people in our communities, instead of in prisons and other institutions. It could mean the difference between a country as rich as Canada stemming the tide and ensuring that every man, woman and child in this country is fed, housed, clothed, educated and supported to contribute to their communities in ways that enrich all of us.
Senator Eggleton spoke to us about the 1970s mincome experiment in Dauphin, Manitoba, an experiment where people were given a guaranteed annual income. Naysayers predicted this would inspire laziness and a community of layabouts. In fact, the groups who most "chose" to accept the income, over work, were women with small children and young people who pursued an education, two groups who might otherwise have been denied either possibility, and two groups in whom the positive investment of a guaranteed income render multiple dividends in terms of how it can permit the recipients to further provide for themselves and their families in the future.
Even though it was limited to one community and for only a few years, the mincome experiment of the 1970s yielded an 8 per cent drop in hospital visits, reductions in incidents of domestic abuse and mental health-related hospitalizations and, in the view of then Senator Hugh Segal, a drop of at least 5 per cent in prison, criminal court and child welfare system costs.
To quote the Honourable Hugh Segal and the Social Affairs Committee's In The Margins report, a guaranteed and livable income benefits society by:
1) Improving mental and physical health and lowering health care costs;
2) Lowering crime rates, costs of courts, police and corrections and increasing public safety;
3) Reducing or even eliminating homelessness and poverty;
4) Improving the efficiency in processing applications and claims and thereby reducing bureaucracy and associated costs, and
5) Providing a strong social safety net that would be strengthened and centralized, thereby saving taxpayers millions of dollars every month.
Countries that have strong social safety nets and economic supports produce healthier children who thrive and grow to contribute to society, which also leads to less marginalization and victimization. Strong social, economic and educational safety nets hinged to guaranteed and livable ideal incomes could also eliminate bureaucratic morass and reduce reliance on other systems, such as the health care and criminal justice systems, which in turn could save us millions more dollars and benefit all Canadians.
Honourable senators, justice for the most marginalized, victimized, criminalized and institutionalized members of society demands that we interrupt injustice and discrimination and that we embark on clear and collective initiatives in the pursuit of justice and true reconciliation.
I applaud Senator Eggleton's efforts in bringing these issues to the floor of this upper chamber, and I'm pleased to join him, along with our colleagues both here and in the other place, in efforts aimed at addressing a problem that can and must be remedied. Thank you.