When I asked Jake about his school experiences, he replied that he had attended more than 10 different elementary and high schools.
Jake was in his early twenties. He told me his family moved a lot when he was growing up. I didn’t ask why, but based on what I’d heard from others it was likely for work opportunities, better or more affordable housing, or as a result of family break-up.
Jake was sitting across from me because he had not completed his Grade 12 diploma. He was on social assistance and his caseworker suggested that he consider returning to school. The first step was an educational skills assessment with me to determine his literacy levels and the most appropriate upgrading program.
Before administering the assessment, I spent a few minutes learning about each individual. Jake’s history was not unusual in that many of the people I saw moved frequently, but I found his story distressing. How difficult it must have been to experience so much disruption. Adolescence can be hard enough without the added strain of dealing with new teachers, catching up on course material and trying to fit in.
Would a basic income have helped Jake’s family? Would it have reduced the number of moves and allowed Jake to have enough stability and continuity to complete his schooling? It is difficult to say. There are many reasons why a young person quits high school; bullying, perceiving their courses as irrelevant, hanging out with the “wrong crowd” and skipping classes, or struggles with learning disabilities and failure.
A basic income cannot solve everything, but it can provide some economic security for families and thus reduce the need to frequently uproot everyone in order to make a living.
For Jake and others without Grade 12 diplomas, potential employment opportunities decrease as employers use this certification to sort out unqualified applicants. Temp agencies offer work for individuals without a diploma, but temp jobs do not always translate into full-time or permanent work.
After several weeks or months at a temp job, the person is often back where they started. Why don’t they just return to school and complete their secondary education? Obtaining their diploma might lead to better job prospects, but many are reluctant to live on social assistance for the year or more it may take to complete their courses. So they choose to be available for work instead of attending upgrading because the prospect of a temp job means income, if only for the short term.
No matter what our socio-economic status, we all benefit from a more educated citizenry. Finland has the highest scores in math and reading in the northern, industrialized countries. They also have high rates of social mobility and innovation (see Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Equality Matters).
If we value education because it makes our society stronger, more resilient and more inclusive, then we need a way to ensure that economic status does not threaten a person’s ability to complete high school or a vocational training program.
Returning to school means expenses such as transportation, lunches, clothes, books and Internet access. A basic income would provide these necessities. Since many adults who return to school have had negative educational experiences in the past, returning to a learning program can be highly anxiety producing. A basic income would go a long way to enabling adult learners to give their full attention to what for many is a challenging situation.
Basic income is a credible tool to help adults complete the education that, for a variety of reasons, was interrupted. Can we accept that high school does not always work out the first time around? Can we then as a society provide the economic security an individual needs to be a successful adult learner? Basic income offers support in a dignified manner. It is key to a caring society that values equality of opportunity.