By Emily Stonehouse
“Poverty isn’t a lack of character; it’s a lack of cash.” That is the concept presented by historian Rutger Bregman during a 2017 TED Talk on basic income. The concept of universal basic income (BI) is that all residents would receive a guaranteed income through unconditional transfer payment. This would mean that members of the population would not have to prove anything to be deserving of a life above the poverty line.
This concept was presented to a group of people on Feb. 8, during a meeting held in the downstairs of the Highland Hills United Church in Minden. As folks sipped tea in a semi-circle around Judy Paul, the facilitator of the session, they were asked why they were in attendance. The consistent response was “to learn more about what basic income is.” And so, the conversation began to unfold from there.
This group was formed from a series of interested citizens, who believed that there are options beyond the norm of polarized income. As was noted in the meeting, this issue is particularly prevalent in Haliburton County. In the County of Haliburton Community Safety Wellbeing Plan that was presented in 2022, it was confirmed that the county has the second highest cost of living in Ontario at $19.47. This is second only to Toronto. The provincial average of those considered low-income is 12.3 per cent, with Haliburton County surpassing that at 17.2 per cent. Amongst this percentage, 23 per cent are children living in poverty.
At the meeting, it was discussed whether BI would rectify this staggering statistic. “If we had a national basic income, it could provide economic security for people in Haliburton working minimum wage jobs, people who don’t not get full-time hours on a regular basis, those who work seasonally and those who are self-employed,” said Paul.
In the wellbeing plan, it was also identified that Haliburton County struggles with a higher unemployment rate (9.6 per cent) than the provincial average (7.4 per cent). The plan states “The employment profile is characterized by low-wage jobs and high Ontario works enrolment rates, particularly among 30 to 39-year-olds.”
Paul believes that BI would support this demographic who are struggling with the cost of life in the county. “We have a significant percentage of young people on social assistance,” she said, “and if they are struggling with mental health issues, addictions or homelessness, a BI would go a long way to stabilize their lives.”
Yet, the concept of BI is far from being formalized. It was originally discussed over 500 years ago, by writer and philosopher Thomas More, who outlined the concept in his book, Utopia. Since then, it has been discussed widely in socio-economic circles, yet not fully adopted in any country as of yet, despite a series of trials implemented in cities around the world.
“Two of the biggest issues we face are, how will we pay for a BI and the belief that people won’t work if they get a BI,” said Paul. This is a common concern circulating around the BI conversations, yet Paul believes that if BI was practiced properly, it would actually have the opposite effect. “BI would enable people to go back to school or take some training because they would be able to cover their living expenses while attending a program and have less debt when they are finished.”
There are quantitative factors to BI, such as the logistics of doling it out in a community that has municipal, provincial, and federal taxes, as well as qualitative considerations, such as quality of life and incentive to work. Yet it’s a topic that has sparked interest in the area. Paul has intentions of continuing the conversation with council members, service clubs, regional economic development partners, and interested members of the community. There is hope that these conversations will snowball into a formalized group who will follow-through with putting the concept into practice for the county as a whole.
Unpacking the idea of basic income
By Emily Stonehouse