The recent announcement that the provincial government will fund a basic income pilot project had Windsor’s politicians clamouring to make the case that our city, struggling with chronically high unemployment and persistent poverty, was the perfect proving ground for a seemingly radical approach to public spending.
While pushing for the pilot project was an opportunity any elected leader would take, it’s perhaps a signal that their often-touted dedication to creating jobs and reducing unemployment is at odds with the trends of a changing world.
It was the auto industry that made Windsor what it is today, a manufacturing haven heavy on blue collar workers. But nowadays those assembly lines have taken on an increasingly robotic look, with companies pushing to increase the bottom line through automation.
And it’s not just on the line. Many facets of production are trending towards removing humans from their equation. From Japan’s first-ever robotic farming operation all the way to grocery stores and fast food chains offering self-ordering and checkout systems.
It was that trend which brought Scott Santens, a freelance writer based in New Orleans, to the idea of a basic income.
One day he came across a Reddit post about the future of technology and trends of automation.
That had him searching for answers to a world where it will be increasingly difficult to sell your labour and make enough money to make ends meet. He landed on guaranteed basic income, a policy which sees all citizens given enough money to cover the cost of living.
He became dedicated to advocating for basic income policies around the world, writing on the topic and moderating Reddit’s basic income community.
He even started a campaign to show what it’s like to live with basic, engaging over 200 donors giving a few dollars each. He gets a total of $1,000 per month, just above the federal poverty line in the USA.
“It’s the foundation of my income,” he says. “It reduces the stress, even if it’s not enough to cover everything, it’s lifting a weight off your shoulders.”
And he wants everyone to have that feeling of relief in knowing there’s enough to cover the bare necessities.
So, while our political class seems dead set on maintaining the drive to achieve “full employment,” proudly cutting ribbons at call centres paying $11 an hour, Santens argues for a re-thinking of what we, as a society, are working towards.
“We can’t go for this idea of full employment any more, that’s a 20th century idea, and it’s just not possible... Even when we create new jobs it’s not going to keep up with the pace that technology is eliminating them.”
With the trend of more robots doing human jobs, he says, there needs to be a shift in what’s considered work, and how we’re paid for it.
“Why is it considered work when someone is paid to watch somebody’s kid, but it’s not work to watch your own kid?,” he asks. “Why is it work to be a nurse, to take care of someone who’s 80 years old and needs assistance, and why is it not considered work when it’s your family member?”
What we really need is to break the link between work and income. Give all people the ability to make ends meet, and we’ll all be better off.
The list of positive benefits is lengthy. In contrast to the current bureaucratic “means testing” and bureaucracy of our social welfare system, a basic income would cost less money to administer while reducing the stigma of receiving public dollars.
It also gives people the opportunity to take risks, like starting a small business. When money is scarce, people are effectively prevented from participating in those economies.
“There’s actually a very high barrier to entry for work. You can’t become a baker if you don’t have the money to buy an oven, the flour and the yeast,” he explains, referring to a basic income project in Namibia which saw a 300 percent jump in self employment.
With so many people struggling to make ends meet, that type of freedom to take a risk would do wonders in Windsor. It’s also a response to one of the major criticisms of basic income programs.
So often you’ll hear that if you give people “free” money, they won’t want to work.
“It implies that in order for people to do any work... you have to threaten them with poverty, starvation and homelessness,” Santens says. “Of course, when it comes to actual human behaviour, we all want to work.”
In fact, a basic income experiment from our own country determined that employment numbers weren’t drastically affected by a basic income.
Known as mincome, it’s Canada’s contribution to the bulk of evidence supporting basic income programs. Introduced in the 1970s the program saw citizens of a Manitoba town receive a minimum income every month until the program was cut in 1979.
No report was officially released, but economist Evelyn Forget conducted an analysis in 2011, which lends credence to a renewed look at basic income.
“She found things nobody was looking for,” says Sheila Regehr, chair of the Basic Income Canada Network, a non-profit, non-partisan group pushing the discussion on basic income policies.
“The people who reduced their work were students who got to stay in school longer and improve their economic prospects going forward, and women who were able to stay home a little bit longer with children when they gave birth,” she explains.
There were also noticeable impacts on public health. Hospital visits dropped by 8.5 percent, along with fewer work-related injuries and psychiatric hospitalizations.
Forget’s study concluded that there was a correlation between positive health impacts and the basic income program, even for those citizens who hadn’t received any of the funding.
By investing in basic income as “an ounce of prevention,” we’d save public dollars on healthcare spending well into the future.
That’s one of the biggest takeaways from Canada’s mincome experiment, says Regehr, and the findings add to the chorus of health professionals that are part of the network.
“There are a strong group of doctors [who] work with a lot of low income people and they realize that the prescription they really need to write for these people is for more income and they can’t do that,” she says.
But it’s not just doctors pushing for a conversation on basic income, it’s the very people that are part of what she calls the “new precariat.”
“There’s a whole new generation of young people coming up with an extremely different relationship with the labour market than what we used to have and they’re worried,” said Regehr.
With an entire swath of the population staring down fewer jobs, increasing income inequality and little hope of achieving the financial success of the previous generation, we should be ripe for change.
Twenty years down the road, we don’t know how our economy will look. We don’t know which jobs will still exist and which will be made obsolete by new technology.
“Those are all really tough things, and they’re going to take a while to work out. In the meantime people will continue to need to eat and put a roof over their heads and raise their kids and keep going,” Regehr says.
“[Basic income] is a policy that, despite some of it’s complexities, is much simpler, much quicker, and much more effective and efficient to do, that will help keep people going while we figure out all of these other problems.”
Santens is convinced that basic income will soon be the norm. Switzerland is heading to a national referendum on the issue in early June, and a major charitable organization just dedicated $30 million to run and gather data on basic income in Kenya and Uganda.
With growing economic inequality and fewer job opportunities, there’s no other alternative. As companies aim to increase their bottom line through automation and outsourcing, politicians shouldn’t be dedicated to bridging that ever-widening gap.
“If we get machines to do all that work, then we should be better off from that,” he says. “Basic income is an important next step for humanity... not just because of technology, but as a big step forward for progress.”