Universal basic income could combat high poverty rates in Saskatchewan

Right to live with dignity PX Fuel

Children affected most

“Universal basic income” has become a bit of a buzz-phrase recently, in part because of the government aid given due to lockdown layoffs. But it’s by no means a new concept, nor is it as radical as some make it out to be.

The name may sound self-explanatory, but it’s important to go over the specifics to make sure we’re all on the same page. Jim Warren, a sociology professor at the University of Regina, describes it as a minimum level of support that would go to every household. This minimum amount would be designed to cover people’s basic needs like food, shelter, transportation, and clothing. It would be universal in that there would be no requirements to receiving this benefit – If you’re a living, tax-paying citizen, you’d receive it regardless of job status or personal wealth.

While we do currently have social assistance programs intended to help people in poverty and those unable to work, these programs have serious flaws. “Welfare as it is right now is a vicious cycle that keeps people locked in,” said Sarah Furutani, a sociology student who works with Street Culture in Regina. “If people make even one dollar more than the designated amount they lost all their benefits,” including affordable prescriptions and housing.

I had the opportunity to interview Joanne Havelock from Poverty Free Saskatchewan, who also believes our current structure does not do enough to alleviate the pressures that those in poverty face daily. When asked how seriously she feels our government takes poverty, she replied, “Well obviously not seriously enough, or more would be done.” We’ve had much of the same sort of anti-poverty programs for years and they haven’t been serving the functions they’re intended to well enough, so why is that still seen as the only rational approach?  

Some Saskatchewanians may not believe that poverty is a problem here, but Saskatchewan has the second highest child poverty rates in the country, and the third highest poverty rate overall. Over the past ten years, the percentage of children living in poverty has never fallen below 26 per cent. Paul Gingrich, a retired University of Regina faculty member who works with Poverty Free Saskatchewan was kind enough to give me the information from Statistics Canada’s most recent release. Gingrich explained that the “market basket measure” (a measure of low-income, based on the costs of a basic standard of living) is roughly $44,800 per year for a family of four and half that for an individual adult in Saskatchewan. Anyone earning lower than that market basket measure is considered to be living in poverty.

According to the most recent data from Statistics Canada, 11 per cent of our province’s total population is living in poverty right now. That works out to be over 130,000 people. That’s possibly too large a number to visualize so I’ll describe it this way – Regina’s entire population is just shy of 230,000, so picture over half our city living in poverty and that will give you an idea. Gingrich also mentioned that that 11 per cent does not include people living on reservations, and guessed that the actual amount would be closer to 20 per cent of our population – more than all the persons living in the capital city. More than half of children living on reserves are living in poverty. 

One possible approach to help close this gap in income would be to introduce a universal basic income. By giving everyone living in poverty enough money to afford food, clothing, and shelter, they would be able to redirect their efforts from basic survival to building a fulfilling life. “Since UBI can’t be cut, there is a safety net for our citizens,” commented Furutani. “Think about when, in Finland, they began to actually solve homelessness by giving people experiencing homelessness a home. When people aren’t constantly worrying about where they will be sleeping they get jobs, they educate themselves, and they become productive members of society.”

For all the psychology nerds out there, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can be used to lay out this logic. According to American psychologist Abraham Maslow, humans have five categories of needs that we try to satisfy. You can picture them in a pyramid-shape with physiological needs like food, rest, and shelter on the base level. Above this level is safety needs, then love and community needs, then esteem needs like feelings of accomplishment, and finally self-actualization at the top where people can achieve their full potential. These needs function as a hierarchy, and whatever level you’re on will dictate what needs are a priority for you.

In an ideal world we would have everyone at the very top, achieving their full potentials, but unfortunately roughly 20 per cent of our province is stuck at that bottom level with no option but to make finding food and shelter their priorities. When someone is occupied with the fact that they don’t have enough money to feed their family, they’re not able to focus on things like acquiring education, personal growth, or bettering their community. A major perk to a universal basic income is that it would allow low-income and impoverished people to work towards their full potentials.   

What it really boils down to is asking our government what they’re willing to invest in. Another major perk mentioned by Havelock is “If you allow people to earn extra money, they are going to spend it in the community and it will benefit the community. If you give tax breaks to big corporations, they may create some local jobs, but the profits will rarely stay in the community.” And even at those jobs, the likelihood of being paid a living wage is lower than is acceptable. [Editor’s note: critics of UBI point out that a universal basic income that comes without universal housing, living wages, and other necessaries of life is simply a way of transferring public money back into private hands, as tenants will give their UBI to their landlords and businesses will argue that a basic income means they don’t need to provide a living wage.]

That’s all I’m going to say regarding UBI for this first piece. In the second I’ll talk more about where we’d find the money, what the organization and implementation could look like, and a few social problems that could be bettered by a UBI.

If you’re the type who likes to do their own research I’d encourage you to watch the documentary “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” on Netflix, read “Utopia for Realists” by Rutger Bregman, and browse the Poverty Free Saskatchewan website.

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