Satya Brata Das is an Edmonton-based writer and strategist. His most recent book, Us, summons Gandhi’s teachings to address today’s challenges.
Within the worldwide protests against racism and brutality, and the chaos sown by COVID-19, there is a deep yearning to reset the fundamentals of our everyday lives.
Our policy gurus, and the politicians who turn ideas into action, face the challenge of delivering new ways of being and belonging in the world, without eroding the foundations of our civil society.
One fruitful path might lie in using an idea whose time has come – the universal minimum income championed by Pope Francis and a legion of experts – to rethink how we live and work.
Starting with the premise that idleness is not an option, that able people should not be paid to sit around and do nothing, a minimum income offers the opportunity to contribute to an ever-more-robust life lived in community, with dignity.
The actual mechanism is in place. All would file a tax return. Those below a certain threshold would receive a Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), a monthly non-taxable benefit to bring them up to their jurisdiction’s living wage.
Since this mechanism is already part of our fiscal infrastructure – along with sales-tax refunds and carbon-tax rebates for low-income tax filers – a GIS for all would also consolidate a broad array of social supports and programs into a single payment.
It would be wrong to cast this universal basic income as an act of charity. Or worse, if it were seen as a vehicle to encourage indolence. Rather, a GIS should be an act of dignity. Citizens would earn the basic income by working two to three days a week in a community service of their choice. In doing so, we would pursue an economy that serves the people by advancing the common good.
Linking the universal income to work that benefits all of us builds solidarity and increases social cohesion. In a post-COVID-19 era, the GIS for all should be used to offer us lives of meaning and purpose.
Think of it as a means of liberation. How many of us are really, truly passionate about our jobs and work? How many of us work only to support ourselves and our dependents? Doing work that pays us, but does not fulfill us? How many of us would rather be doing something else, pursuing our talents, our passions, our interests?
A GIS linked to community service frees us to pursue that path. We would put in the time we need to earn a basic income, by investing our time and energy in enhancing our collective quality of life. In a country with an immensely high rate of volunteerism, we would be paid for our work helping others and helping our communities.
Rather than rigidly defining what community service is, we might start with a broader approach. We could define community work for guaranteed income as any work that demonstrably contributes to the common good, or enhances the common wealth.
This would liberate so many of us from work we don’t enjoy – the “dead-end” jobs that pay us a wage, yet sap our souls – to follow the pursuits that we find personally fulfilling and to contribute to a better life for us all.
And for those of us who do enjoy our work, but wish we had to work less to support ourselves, the basic income becomes indispensable support. It means we could reduce our work hours, and use the saved hours in service of our communities.
In a post-COVID-19 world, a basic income would enable more people to remain in jobs they enjoy, without worrying about the necessities of life.
For those of us who already receive a GIS because we are senior citizens, community service would be optional. Yet it might offer a sense of engagement that would alleviate the loneliness and isolation that afflicts more than a third of older people.
A GIS could indeed be a foundation for our post-COVID-19 society: moving from charity to dignity, and a future that works for all of us.
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