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Stories from real people confirm they know how best to spend their money, says columnist.

Who knows best? The case for basic income

in Community/Poverty Reduction by

Fresh from the North American Basic Income Guarantee (NABIG) conference held in Hamilton at the end of May, I have been thinking about the stories I heard from people who benefited from a basic income.

What jumped out was how the money made a difference, and the stories confirmed for me that people know what is best for themselves and their families.

At a plenary session, we listened to two women involved with the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction. Jodi, a sole support mother of three told us that one of her children has autism and “brittle bones” syndrome. Hospital visits are frequent and the cost of hospital parking caused considerable hardship in this low-income family.

What is the first thing this mother did when she received the basic income?  She bought a bunch of parking passes so that when another hospital visit comes up suddenly, she can focus on her daughter instead of worrying out how to get her car out of the parking lot. With obvious delight, Alana described how her cupboards and fridge were now full of food.  She began eating vegetables that she had never seen before, often asking others how to cook the unfamiliar foods. Encouraged by this abundance and the fact that her mental health has stabilized since receiving the basic income, she is thinking about going to college to study social services.

More personal stories came from the first screening of a documentary on the Manitoba basic income experiment known as Mincome. “Mincome” was an experiment launched in Manitoba from 1974 to 1978. Sponsored by the federal Liberal and provincial NDP governments, its goal was to evaluate how well people fared economically and socially given a form of basic income or guaranteed annual income (GAI).

The researchers were interested in what, if any impact a GAI would have on participants’ work patterns. Decades after this experiment, University of Manitoba economist Evelyn Forget analyzed the Mincome data, and in a report published in 2011 found that only new mothers and teenagers worked substantially less. Mothers with newborns stayed at home longer before they returned to work, and teenagers worked less and were thus able to complete their high school education.  The fear that a guaranteed income would cause people to leave the paid workforce was unfounded.

The filmmakers interviewed Dauphin residents who were children or teenagers in the 1970s. They made their own case for basic income through the stories they shared. One grandmother spoke of how she became pregnant at 17 and faced a bleak future. She went on to complete school, work and serve her community and she credits the basic income for giving her the help she needed at a critical time in her life. For one man the money allowed him to complete high school and then an apprenticeship in carpentry. He now passes those skills on to young people. A farmer described how her family bought a truck to take their lambs to market.  This single purchase made a significant difference to their farm’s prosperity. Another man described how he visited the dentist for the first time at age 10 and despite having many cavities, he said, “I still have my teeth.”

The Hamilton women offered powerful testimonials. They are engaged in their communities, doing productive and necessary work such as: advocating for change by engaging in community organizations; sharing their lived experience so that people better understand the impacts of poverty; caring for children and pursuing post-secondary education. Their current work happens to be unpaid. What constitutes “work” is perhaps the topic of another article, however it intersects with the notion of conditions on the basic income. A common objection to the basic income is that people will not work. What is often implied is that people will not work for pay. When will we recognize that valuable (unpaid) work is done everyday that enables families and communities to flourish?

I was reminded of the importance of seeing the case for basic income as a human right when a plenary speaker recited Article 40 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states:

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, included food, clothing, housing and medical care and the necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

A common thread runs through the stories from the Hamilton women and the MINCOME participants. Each individual and family had unique needs and the money they received allowed them to take care of those needs with dignity and autonomy. The stories and speakers from the conference urged me to reject paternalistic policies, recognize the value of all work, and see the case for basic income through the lens of human rights.

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Judy is interested in promoting ideas that shift our society in a more just, sustainable direction. Newly retired, she spent her career facilitating positive change in the areas of adult and family literacy, mental health, community development, and outdoor recreation. As a volunteer, she worked on climate justice issues, peace education with youth, and blogging about local food. Judy lives in Haliburton where she loves to ski, paddle, read and watch the birds.

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