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Earlier discussion

What if we gave the poor $20,000 a year? Add to ...

In her article from Saturday's Globe and Mail, Erin Anderssen explores the following proposal: What if poverty-stricken Canadians were given cash directly in their pockets, with no conditions? It's a bold idea, and it runs counter to the paternal approach to poverty that polices what is done with "our" money and tries to strong-arm the poor into better lives. That approach has had limited success: The wage gap continues to grow, and one in 10 Canadians still struggles below the low-income line.

The idea of giving money to the poor without strings is not new. It melds altruism and libertarianism, saying both that the best way to fight poverty is to put cash in poor people's pockets and that people can make their own choices better than bureaucrats can. As a result, it can find support in theory from both left and right.

Erin Anderssen participated in a recent online discussion on the subject along with Dr. James Mulvale, the associate dean of the University of Regina's Faculty of Social Work.

Globe and Mail: Hello. Joining us now are Globe and Mail feature writer Erin Anderssen and Dr. James Mulvale, the associate dean of the University of Regina's Faculty of Social Work. They are ready to take your questions, so please feel free to send them in.

John Allan: My question is the following: By what right would $20,000 be extorted from productive citizens, who have earned their success and money, to be given to a person who has not?

Erin Anderssen: Thanks for joining us Dr. Mulvale. Addressing Mr. Allan's comment, what would be the case you might make for him for a guaranteed annual income?

Jim Mulvale: I think the article in Saturday's paper captured well many of the key issues around guaranteed income. Although the basic concept is simple - unconditional, and adequate allotment of income for all, there are lots of different ways to design the system to make it affordable and tailored to the population in question.

Catherine S.: How would you encourage people to work in lower paying jobs, or account for the fact that a person working full time at the minimum wage right now (which would amount to about $20,000.) could then receive that money without working?

Erin Anderssen: Hi Catherine. In Quebec the poverty committee proposed a figure of around $12,000 - which amounted to 80 per cent of the cost of buying necessities to live. Most advocates for a guaranteed income say a program could be calculated that would alleviate poverty while still creating an incentive to work, using a reverse income tax system.

Jim Mulvale: Existing expenditures on income transfer programs are very sizeable - some of this could be channeled into a GI programme from existing conditional measures such as social assistance. We also need to have an adult conversation about taxes in this country (to quote economist Hugh Mackenzie) to ensure just taxation of those at higher income levels (including profitable corporations).

Guest: Yes. If the top 5% of society are paying 95% of the income taxes, then absolutely. Redistribution of wealth is critical to the evolution of our otherwise "civilised" society.

Erin Anderssen: Guest, You make a good point: the wage gap continues to grow in Canada, and at a faster rate than many other countries. This certainly perpetuates poverty over generations.

Jim Mulvale: A guaranteed base of income could actually encourage people to engage in the labour market or to seek reeducation or training for a better job.

Gina: Would this actually end up saving the taxpayer money? How much does the government spend now on each poor person, for welfare, food, prison costs, drug treatment, etc.

Erin Anderssen: Hi Gina, According to Senator Hugh Segal, a long-time advocate for an annual income, StatsCan reports that Ottawa and the provinces have spent about $150-billion annually, since 2007, on transfers in a range of income security programs unrelated to education and health care.

Catherine S.: But who would work in the service industry or in unskilled labour?

Jim Mulvale: In our current system of income support, social assistance recipients meet a "welfare wall" as was explained in Erin's article -- if they leave the welfare bureaucracy to get a job, they loose related benefits and are in the end worse off. A GI can be a better bridging mechanism, if designed well.

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