Guaranteed Basic Income

by David Newman

This is an idea whose time has both passed and come. It’s also one Canada could and should take very seriously now.


Contrary to many preconceptions, this isn’t a conservative, liberal or socialist concept; it is simply humanist and common sense. The principle is simple: every adult citizen is entitled to the necessities of life as a right in our society, a minimum guarantee of survival. Getting more than survival basics is up to each individual.

Program Design

Let’s start by making a basic assumption that may or may not be accurate. We can collectively determine what the right numbers are. But here’s one way it could work.

Set up an account for every taxpayer. Assign an account manager at the federal, provincial or local level, whichever is most effective. Each account manager would have a set number of clients, let’s say 100, and would act as a concierge for their clients, navigating through government programs and ensuring accountability for both citizen and government.

Set a national minimum level of basic income, the poverty line; for simplicity, say $24,000 a year. Each account would receive a deposit of $2,000 per month. Each taxpayer’s account over the minimum $24,000 would be annually clawed back on an incrementally sliding scale according to wealth – let’s call this income tax. Each taxpayer could voluntarily opt in or out of monthly deposits depending on their personal circumstances and needs.

Set up demographic and personal need offsets, bonus payments based on criteria determined and constantly revised by our governments and applied by the account manager. Payment categories could be such elements as:

  • Location – $24,000 may be fine in Lethbridge or Peterborough or Cornerbrook but won’t go far in Toronto, Vancouver or Iqaluit. A premium could be added for the cost of living in the community where the taxpayer lives. It could be as large or small a geographic area as needed – say, from Muskoka district or Osoyoos region to Gastown or St. Leonard.
  • Children, say $500 added for each child under 18.
  • Training and education leave.
  • Old Age or retired bonus.
  • Health challenge or disability, designed to provide what is actually needed by the individual patient for support, From MS to developmental disability to paraplegia, to autism, including caregiver support. This would be done in conjunction with health care and social work professionals, similar to, but more equitable and simpler than systems proposed by organizations such as Every Canadian Counts.
  • Cultural and societal support or incentives.
  • Behavioural incentives, from energy conservation, recycling, volunteer activities, charitable donations, to creative activity (music, writing or arts).
  • Other elements as need or desired.

Implications and Considerations

There’s an iceberg here and we’re truly talking about its tips but there are many potential impacts, concerns and benefits about this kind of approach. Many countries have versions of a basic guaranteed income, so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel and we should learn from their experience: Norway, Finland, France, Brazil, Cyprus and others. But Canadians are very good at creating their own government and social programs and we must do so here. Let’s chip off some cubes from the iceberg to put in our drink.

Potential Benefits

  • Universal single point of service delivery.
  • Reduce duplication – one customized flexible program, not a different one in each jurisdiction os service need.
  • Adapted to each individual’s circumstances and needs.
  • Eventually reduce governments programs: Child allowance, OAS, CPP, EI, Welfare, Student loans, training allowances and countless others.
  • Streamline the Public Service. Specialist departments from Health to Education, Defense, Policing, Environment, Infrastructure and others will still be needed but income support, subsidization and welfare programs could be fully integrated and potentially save huge expenditures and provide better individualized, more robust and nimble services.

Potential Concerns

  • A smaller Public Service could mean less employment. Specialist departments and staff would still be important but the service delivery workforce at all levels of government could be substantially reduced. For example, an account manager for each 100 of about 20 million Canadian taxpayers (about 16.6 million in 2019) equals 200,000 account managers nationally.
  • Individual account management means that issues of privacy, inclusivity, accessibility, accountability, transparency, malfeasance and others would become even more crucial. Comprehensive oversight would be vital.
  • Program parameters would have to be carefully set to avoid disincentives to work or participate effectively in the community and society and to provide reward for productivity and excellence. There are many aspects to this concern for individuals, family groups and communities.

Potential Impacts

There could be many impacts of a guaranteed basic income, some straight-forward and some more far-fetched. Here are just a few:

  • More inclusive, less polarized, prejudiced and disadvantaged communities. A basic economic leveler would go a long way to eliminating poverty, inequity, intolerance, ostracization and stigmatization of individuals and groups on an economic basis.
  • Redefinition of what is entailed in being a citizen, taxpayer and family member along with less negative pressure to simply survive. More emphasis and broader understanding of the value of belonging and contributing. Does the composer, author or sculptor make a contribution to society of comparable value to the teacher, doctor or electrician?
  • Reinvention and re-engineering of quasi-social services such as insurance, mortgages, loans, pensions, banking, charities, NGOs and more.
  • Re imagining and reviewing our government and governance. Could provinces and national governments or, at least, their service delivery be combined? What does local and regional mean? How do indigenous nations fit? Do workplaces, recreational activity, vacations, stereotypes and other societal practices change? What is a worker? Will we need a Ministry or Happiness or a GNH (gross national happiness indicator)?

Is a guaranteed basic income a way to realize a more secure, equal, inclusive, productive and, yes, happier society or is it simply a more effective tool to deliver income security? Does it facilitate survival or enhance apathy? Will it actually save time, money and effort? Is it a simple service strategy or an opportunity to re-invent our society? Let’s find out. Now is a great time to do it because we truly need it.

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