Work woes, tech advances drive basic income talk


TORONTO – In the mid- to late 1970s, every single person in one rural Manitoba city received $1,255 a year — roughly $7,500 in today’s dollars.

The amount increased depending on the number of people living in each household, maxing out at $3,969, or nearly $23,500 in 2016 currency, for a family of five or more.

The people in the Dauphin, Man., experiment didn’t have to work to receive this stipend. If they did, their benefit dropped 50 cents for every dollar they received.

The residents of Dauphin just had to exist to receive their full guaranteed annual income.

About four decades later, policy-makers and the public in Canada and around the world are eyeing the basic guaranteed income scheme again, buoyed by an evolving labour landscape and technological advances that have left them wondering if today’s social services are enough.

Finland plans to launch a basic income pilot next year. The Swiss will soon vote on unconditional basic income in a referendum.

Closer to home, the Ontario government’s latest budget promises to run a pilot in the future and multiple politicians across Canada have expressed interest in studying the idea.

“I think people are simply looking at the state of the economy and they’re starting to focus on changes that have been taking place for a very long time,” said Evelyn Forget, a professor at the University of Manitoba, who studied the so-called mincome experiment in Dauphin and continues to research data from the pilot.

One of these changes, she said, is that work is no longer a permanent, nine-to-five gig with health coverage and a pension. Instead, it takes longer for people to land stable employment and many shuffle between short-term contracts without such benefits, she said.

In the Greater Toronto Area, for example, 60 per cent of workers have stable, secure jobs, according to a 2013 report on precarious work. Insecure employment has spread beyond jobs in the service sector to the white-collar workforce as well, a followup report found.

This changing labour force is prompting people to rethink how governments deliver social programs, said Forget, and realize that current solutions like income assistance are expensive and for the most part, ineffective.

“I think tensions are building in our society,” said Wayne Lewchuk, a McMaster University professor of economics and labour studies, who co-authored both reports in conjunction with United Way Toronto & York Region.

“More and more people are questioning … the wisdom of how we’re organizing our labour markets and our economy.”

Lower wages and precarious employment lower a person’s purchasing power, he said, and more people spending less negatively effects the economy.

A guaranteed basic income could be a way to prime the economic pump, Lewchuk said.

Another change in the workforce could come from technological advancements that will eliminate jobs, some basic income advocates argue.

Millions of positions will be lost over the next several years thanks to disruptive labour market changes, according to a World Economic Forum report published this year.

No job is safe from machine-outsourcing, writes Scott Santens, a basic income advocate who lives in the U.S. off of a crowdfunded monthly basic income.

He argues people need to prepare for a world where their income isn’t dependent on the jobs machines can do, but instead should be given a stipend to sustain themselves while doing the kind of work they still find valuable.

Forget believes it is a matter of continued public interest and political will for basic income to become reality.

“I think it’s almost inevitable, eventually, that this kind of a policy will be implemented.”

Follow @AleksSagan on Twitter.