In Canada, certain conditions apply to the unconditional and not everyone qualifies for universal benefits. [version française]
The Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) defines a Basic Income as a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement.
I do not think this idea will ever be fully implemented in Canada nor anywhere else in the world. This causes me little concern because UBI will forever exhibit the traces of its origins in the very imperfect social safety net we have today and have always had. Human institutions evolve from common ancestors: two very different policies are still linked by evolutionary history. A horse’s leg corresponds to the bones in our middle toe, not the same function at all, yet equivalent from an evolutionary point of view.
There are no social programs in Canada that are universal. Some condition always applies to reduce the amount and eventually eliminate the benefit completely. This is quite apart from any discussion of whether the program is sufficient, necessary, feasible or even appropriate.
When Canada implemented income tax in 1917 one of the features of this temporary program was the personal exemption: $1,500 for singles and $3,000 for others, $24,500 and $50,000, in today’s dollars. While this benefit was cash, it was hardly a transfer, since you just got to keep some of the money you already had. It was individual, a couple getting twice the benefit of an individual. It was unconditional in the sense that there were no strings attached, no work requirement, no declaration of any means (property or possessions) other than income. It was universal, except that the amount depended on revenue. The 4% of earnings on the first $1,500 dwindled to nothing if you had no income.
Fast forward 99 years to when the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) was introduced in 2016. Today we distinguish between reimbursable tax deductions and non-reimbursable tax deductions. The personal exemption is one of the later. Benefits only pay down your tax burden. You get no benefit if you pay no income tax. The Canada Child Benefit is one of the former and is a bona fide Basic Income, even if certain conditions apply.
Is the CCB universal? It’s paid to all families with children. Or is that all children with families? Of course you can’t send a monthly cheque to a toddler. The caregiver receives the money with no strings attached. When Universal Basic Income is distributed to all adults, its universality is never questioned in proposals such as BIEN’s or Andrew Yang. Is restricting the benefit to children less legitimate because they are dependants? In fact, children “without families,” that is “maintained by an agency” also receive the benefit. The amounts are identical; just the name of the program changes. I think that this settles the question: it is a benefit for children, not a benefit for families with children.
Is the CCB individual? If you consider that it’s paid to families, then no. If, however, as I argue, it benefits individual children and is just turned over to their caregivers, then yes.
Is the CCB unconditional? All social programs have some condition which excludes some recipients or reduces benefits. Universality and unconditionality are inextricably linked.
Both arise from a desire to allocate or distribute ostensibly scarce resources according to the opposing principles of fairness and efficiency. The issue is presented as a trade-off: Either the quantities are sufficient to fulfill the needs of the recipients and not everyone receives the benefit or everybody receives a diminished allocation and no one has enough.
The application of such conditions which eliminate recipients or slash benefits is what is referred to as means-testing. This exists in Canada. The welfare system is the classic example. Benefits are cut dollar for dollar if your earnings exceed a paltry threshold. For example, in Quebec, welfare provides $690 per month: 29.6% of what it takes to avoid poverty. Any earning above $200 is deducted 100% from your cheque. The welfare system intrudes into your private life: a couple receives 29% less than two individuals, so undeclared roommates are committing fraud, as far as the authorities are concerned.
Another way of distributing scarce resources is what is known in Canada as income testing. Benefits depend on how much revenue you declare on your income tax returns, which brings us back to the personal exemption of 1917.
You may not agree that this taxation feature qualifies as an embryonic social program and find it far-fetched to call it a cash transfer. Identity of form and function is not required to establish evolutionary kinship.
Means-Testing vs. Income-Testing
Means-testing and income-testing certainly have the same ancestor: the need for a fair and efficient distribution of putative scarce resources. In form they are virtually identical yet in the Canadian context, their function could not be more different.
Means-testing is a human activity whereby a bureaucrat gathers information on helpless and vulnerable people to determine how little they deserve. It is directed specifically at lower-earning people to make sure that they don’t receive more than they deserve. It is an evil system in which, if you are not destitute enough, requires that you divest of your property or savings regardless of your interests. Means-testing is a social policy tool reserved for those living in poverty and designed to punish them for their condition.
Income-testing is an algorithm which applies in the same way to everyone based on tax returns. The testing part of income-testing is achieved through tax self-reporting. Canadians don’t consider filing your income tax as an invasion of their private life. In any case, the government already knows how much tax you’ve paid because your employer turns over your tax deductions to the authorities every month and has been doing so since 1943. Revenue Canada doesn’t know or care what you do with your take-home pay nor tell you how to spend it. Unlike with means-testing, there is no stigma attached to phasing out benefits for the rich.
No one questions the practice of taxing back from the rich funds equivalent to the Canada Child Benefit from which they derive no important advantage and thereby recover some of the cost of a program which is immensely useful for everybody else. Conscientious objectors to means-testing will insist that even when this clawback is done specifically for the purpose of recouping UBI payments, it does not infringe on the principle of universality because it is done in separate operations, the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. In Canada, we tend to view this as an elaborate and unnecessary fiction. Covering up the mechanism does little to hide the process, which serves no other purpose than to claw back UBI from the rich.
In the FAQS page of BIEN, under the caption: “WHY PAY MONEY TO THE RICH WHEN THEY DON’T NEED IT?” we read:
“It is efficient to pay the same level of income to everybody of the same age and then tax it back from those who don’t need it. The alternative is to means-test incomes so that only those who are poor receive them: but that results in complexity, stigma, errors, fraud, and intrusive bureaucratic interference in people’s lives.”
First of all, “those who don’t need it” is a very unfortunate choice of words. There is no more reason to ask the rich than the poor to justify their needs, as means-testing does. Only the poor bear the brunt of the evils of means-testing. “Taxing back,” never questions your needs. That is all that “income-testing” is.
This distinction between means-testing and income testing is not hotly debated within BIEN: Most mainstream member philosophers and economists dismiss it out of hand, considering both concepts violations of the principles of universality and unconditionality. I can’t accept this argument because it is based on concepts which aren’t actually found in the real world. At least not in Canada!
UBI vs. NIT
Another thorny issue in the Basic Income community which may seem quibbling to the un-initiated is the distinction between Universal Basic Income and the Negative Income Tax. Every party to the debate agrees that in terms of net income in the pocket of the beneficiary, these measures are identical. Also, their net cost to the state is also the same. Finally, both programs can be engineered so that the beneficiary is unable to tell the difference. Doesn’t that make all discussion of their relative merits moot? Perhaps I am missing something. Let me quote Davide Tondani in full:
From the distributive point of view, the constraint of equal spending leads to distributive outcomes where NIT is effective at the bottom of the distribution, while UBI also distributes income to the middle incomes. This seems to suggest that in NIT, a minority of “poor” citizens are financed by people with middle and high pre-tax income. In UBI, a minority of wealthier citizens redistribute part of their income to people with lower incomes. Greater efficiency in fighting poverty by NIT and the presence of high marginal tax rates on low incomes reduces the labour supply formed by the same individuals. On the other hand, in UBI the lower benefits for poor people associated with lower marginal tax rate provide an incentive for low-income people to participate to the labour market. Preference for NIT seems to favour redistribution towards a wider range of low-income people. In the absence of a legal constraint to accept a job offered by the government, no personal effort in terms of a more intensive labour supply is required from these individuals. Opposite to this is a model of “residual welfare,” UBI on the other hand is less efficient in raising low incomes, but is more sensitive to inequality and social inclusion, and supporting labour supply and citizenship.—page 18
Tondani comments further on how identical outcomes can arise from divergent aims:
“Although NIT and UBI policies tend to lead to very similar, if not identical, distributive outcomes there is great epistemological difference between the two. Treating them as equal can thus lead to the risk of very real confusion about the real distributive aims of the policy maker.”—Tondani page 44
So there is no confusion about outcomes, only the aims of the policy-maker. I don’t see why motivation is relevant when outcomes are identical. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, it might as well be paved with bad ones.
Shouldn’t good policy even backed by bad intentions be preferred over bad policy supported by good ones?
Scarcity vs. Policy
A final point about scarcity. The paucity of resources is often presented as a fact. It’s actually a policy decision, a choice of priorities.
A frequently heard argument is that if you give resources to those who don’t need them and provide free services for those who can afford to pay for them, you are depriving others who don’t have the resources and can’t afford the services. This argument only works if the resources and the services are scarce. This is not a question of objective fact. Scarcity is a question of political choice, the setting of priorities. For example, public housing could be more abundant if battleships and fighter jets were scarcer.
It is not often that rationing of a resource is unavoidable.
What social programs are, the intentions behind them, and their history is of little importance in comparison to what they do.
I have argued that the Canada Child Benefit is a Canadian-flavoured Basic Income which is as close as it gets to a UBI in the real world. It is universal because all humans go through childhood, it is individual because strictly based on headcount and it is unconditional because you don’t have to do anything special to deserve it, and you can do with it as you please, no questions asked. Furthermore, it is a regular, predictable, cash transfer paid monthly, for which you can sign up before you are even born. Does it deviate in some way from the ideal, orthodox form of Basic Income? Of course! Where do we find ideal forms in the real world?
Some will claim the Child Benefit is not important as a putative example of a UBI or will argue that the Child Benefit is not close enough to being a UBI to qualify as such. How close is close enough? What constitutes important? There is no objective way to decide these questions. The answers are not falsifiable.
Will calling the CCB a Basic Income hurt the brand and confuse people about what a Basic Income really is? The confusion has nothing to do with the shortcomings of the Canada Child Benifit as a Basic Income. Every example helps promote the concept, regardless of deviations from the ideal. And the more familiar the public is with Basic Income, the more likely it will spot the points to improve in existing implementations such as the CCB. It is the scarcity of concrete examples to point to that makes it difficult for people to establish connections. The more examples you find, the better people will understand. Far from confusing people, a consistent terminology with variegated examples will help crystallize the concept in peoples’ minds.
Basic Income is not something that can be summed up in a definition, it is a living thing, constantly adapting to a changing local environment. It is less man-made than responsive to conditions. Certain conditions apply.
Earlier this year we announced the publication of Adrienne Goehler’s new book on Basic Income. The article appears below. An English translation is now available, which can be downloaded here.
This new edition features additional material: an interview with Sarath Davala, and an essay by Julio Linares.
In 2010, Götz Werner and Adrienne Goehler wrote 1000€ für Jeden: Freiheit, Gleichheit, Grundeinkommen (1000€ for everyone: Freedom, Equality, Basic Income). Now Adrienne Goehler has written a new book, Nachhaltigkeit braucht Entschleunigung braucht Grundein/auskommen ermöglicht Entschleunigung ermöglicht Nachhaltigkeit (Sustainability needs Deceleration needs Basic Income | Livelihood allows Deceleration allows Sustainability).
To read an interview with Adrienne Goehler, click here.
Adrienne Goehler has provided the following translation of the website page about the book:
If we had unrestricted basis income for everyone, what would the consequences be? Would it increase freedom and equality and so dim down the ever faster accelerating times? Would it help to save the environment with its restricted resources?
Over the last two years, Adrienne Goehler has been addressing these and other burning questions of our time while working at the “Institut für transformative Nachhaltigkeitsforschung” in Potsdam. In this book that presents the results of her inquiries, she embarks on a journey from research to politics to art. She invited people from the most diverse parts of society to contribute essays, interviews, stories, images, and artistic interventions concerning the relationship of sustainability, deceleration, and basic income. She constellated insights into the financial world with suggestions contributed by experts in agriculture, development policy, climate change, and ecology. Artists address the most important questions of our time: What do we need for a good life and do we have enough of it for all of us? How will “work” look like in the future, and who will be employed? If we learn to think of unpaid and poorly paid social work as equally important as other kinds of work, will that lead to more gender equality? How do we identify meaningful tasks that would fulfill our lives? And last not least: Would implement an unconditional universal basic income as a basic human right be in tune with the seventeen goals of sustainability, as declared by the United Nations? The book offers insights into the possibilities and contradictions of our actions. It presents all the important aspects of contemporary debates concerning universal basic income. A passionate wake-up call: We need to break out of frozen patterns of thinking and acting, strive for knowledge, and move around more freely.
Complaints about acceleration were already associated with industrialization, but in its present extent, its intensification and radicalization, it no longer concerns only working conditions, but the whole of life. Acceleration has totalized itself. The philosopher Byung-Chul Han, author of the book “Fatigue Society”, describes the most important change from capitalism in Marx’s time, when factory owners and workers faced each other in a clearly defined relationship of exploitation, to today’s self-exploitation relationships, in which people became entrepreneurs of themselves, caught in the illusion of self-realization. Thus neo-liberalism formed the oppressed worker into a free entrepreneur who worked incessantly on his self-optimization. We are constantly saving time through faster transportation, fast food, faster information media and tools, and therefore we are packing more and more into the day. Hartmut Rosa calls it, “quantity increase per time unit”. We believe that we have to be available 24/7, as if we were all on call at all times. The present with its unreasonable demands makes us pant, our fantasy lies idle under states of exhaustion and multiple fears. We find ourselves in a hamster wheel whose speed we cannot determine and which many believe we cannot leave. The significantly high increase of depression and burnout are symptoms of this too much, which is at the same time a too little. The time researcher Barbara Adam therefore states: “We need not only an ecological ‘footprint’, but also a ‘timeprint’. I remember with longing “Momo”, the character in Michael Ende’s novel. Momo realized that anyone who has the time of mankind has unlimited power. She brought back time stolen by grey ‘time thieves’ to the people, when she realized that by saving time people had forgotten to live in the now and enjoy the beauty in life. And I am thinking of John Franklin, the polar explorer, whom Stan Nadolny memorialized in his novel “The Discovery of Slowness”, because his perception refused everything fast and superficial and transformed slowness into calm. Time and the feeling of permanent acceleration, breathlessness, is the subject of many interviews. I also feel connected to the idea of deceleration as a further prerequisite for the chance to lead a sustainable life. Hartmut Rosa, who imagines the process of the great transformation as successful only in connection with a different way of dealing with time, is also connected to this idea. And with a basic income.
In addition to the immense challenges outlined above, there is another Herculean task: the comprehensive redefinition of life and work as a result of ongoing digitalization, with which gainful employment will change qualitatively and quantitatively in a variety of ways, some of them very fundamentally. In conjunction with the increasing importance of the service sector, a working society is emerging in which a growing part of the population does not have continuous, let alone lifelong, gainful employment, but instead works independently or on a project-based basis, often accompanied by poorer pay and greater insecurity.
With the start of the digital age in 2002, people were able to store more information digitally than in analogue form for the first time. Another ten years later, the term ‘Work 4.0’ came into circulation to describe the fourth industrial revolution.
Since then, there have been a large number of studies that look at the impact on working life to date. Many of them assume a significant loss of traditional jobs, which will in future be done by machines, and predict radical changes. A frequently quoted – and now also widely criticized – study by the scientists Osborne and Frey from Oxford University assumes that 47 percent of gainful employment in the USA is at high risk of being automated in the coming years. The Davos World Economic Forum estimated in 2016 the number of jobs that will be lost in the next five years in the 15 most important industrial and emerging countries as a result of the “fourth industrial revolution”, 5 million. Women’s jobs were particularly affected. Companies such as Siemens, SAP, Telecom and the big ones in Silicon Valley agreed with these forecasts, which clearly boosted the discussion about an unconditional basic income, because it was strengthened by a rather unexpected side.
Universal Basic Income (UBI) is meant to provide financial security and address job losses. Africa is one continent where UBI is critical. During the COVID-19 outbreak that has rendered many people jobless, it could have been used to prevent them from sliding into poverty.
Universal Basic Income is unconditional cash transfers to recipients guaranteed by the government. Recipients are entitled to the income regardless they are earning or not. The universal basic income is not taxable and recipients can use it for any of their needs. The government has no obligation to follow up on how the payment is used.
Currently, there is no country with a Universal Basic Income in Africa, but there are schemes that can help transition toward a UBI policy. There have been trials in some countries in Africa, such as Kenya, Uganda and Namibia. The trials that were conducted in the three African countries showed positive results. What benefits can we expect from a universal basic income in Africa?
Eliminate Poverty by Generating Income
By introducing Universal Basic Income in Africa, recipients can improve their financial status from low-income earners to medium-income earners. The recipients will have more disposable income to cater to their needs.
This would have been beneficial at the time when many Africans have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Basic income will help to support families and prevent them from sliding into poverty.
Ease of Access to Education for Children
With the guarantee of basic income, children can access education without having to work to support their parents. The lack of income leads to increased school dropouts and consequently early marriages.
Children drop out of school to help their parents generate additional income through informal employment. When casual jobs are not available, children get married early to seek solace and financial support from their spouses.
Providing basic income would help children stay in school since they do not have to look for employment to support their families. While children are in school, early marriages can be eliminated and help them gain an education and live a dignified life.
Promote Entrepreneurship and Increase Job Opportunities
Through UBI, people will have access to more disposable income. When people have access to disposable income, they can take risks and start businesses.
Starting a business requires some capital and enough funding before it can start generating revenue. Basic income can be directed to startups since the government needs not to follow up on how it is used.
The impact of basic income is that people can take risks and start businesses that will consequently create job opportunities. Companies will also help the economy through corporate taxes and income taxes.
Improve Mental and Physical Health
Basic income helps people lead a better life, improving their physical and mental health. The lack of disposable income to cater for the basic needs leads to stress and depression, pushing people to live in deplorable living conditions. Moreover, the lack of income hinders people from accessing health insurance.
The same way the government provides free health and education, it is also best that African governments invest in UBI for the financial security of their citizens. With disposable incomes, recipients can secure health insurance and live a dignified life.
A study carried out by GiveDirectly Organization in 63 Kenyan villages, provided each adult 0.75 dollars per day. The results of the study showed that recipients had an improvement in consumption and well-being. The recipients increased their investments in livestock and home improvement.
Financial and Social Inclusion
The problem of social inclusion is rampant in Africa. The lack of basic income leads to social marginalization, preventing people from accessing modern services like insurance, bank services and technology, such as access to mobile phones.
UBI would help to alleviate social marginalization by assisting people in accessing modern services.
For instance, the government can remit basic income through banks or mobile transfers. As such, people will open bank accounts and buy mobile phones to receive the money. This way, marginalized people can enjoy modern services.
Reduce Financial Gaps between the Rich and the Poor
One of the ways to fund Universal Basic Income is through taxes. Income taxes can lead to a fair distribution of wealth by taxing high-income earners and reducing wealth gaps. Africa is the leading continent with huge income disparities between the high-income earners and low-income earners.
Low skilled workers barely get incremental increases in their wages, pushing them into adverse poverty with increasing inflation. Through UBI, the government can tax high-income earners and redistribute the proceeds to low-income earners.
Family Cohesiveness and Stability
In many African countries, there is domestic violence due to the inability to cater to family needs and depression. The survivors of domestic violence cannot leave their spouses because they lack a stable income. If the survivors can access basic income, they can leave their spouses and meet their basic needs.
Also, if there is a guaranteed income, depression and stress can be eliminated, reducing domestic violence.
In many African countries such as Kenya, parents give birth to many children for cheap labour and security during their old age. If there is a guarantee of regular income, parents would not need to raise many children to support them when they grow old.
How to Fund the Universal Basic Income in Africa
There are many ways through which African governments can fund Universal Basic Income through taxes and creativity. These are some of the ways to finance the Universal Basic Income in Africa.
Reducing Government Expenditures
Reducing government expenditures can set aside some monies that can be directed to fund basic incomes. African governments can reduce some funding to revenue-generating state corporations. Some of the revenues they generate can be directed to the basic income initiative. Most of the recurrent expenditures for government institutions can be halted.
Higher Taxes for High-Income Earners
Through higher taxes from higher-income earners, governments can generate funds to finance basic income initiatives. It would also help to reduce income disparities between the rich and the poor. For instance, governments can introduce a luxury tax and wealth tax above a fixed net worth.
Increase Corporate Taxes and Reduce Financial Benefits to Leaders
African governments can increase corporate taxes by three percent to generate additional revenue for UBI. Additionally, governments can reduce some benefits for politicians. The monies can be redirected to a basic income to promote recipient welfare.
African governments should invest in basic income for its citizens. Basic income is equally important in a nation like other social amenities such as health and education. It leads to general wellbeing, social cohesion, and productivity. In addition, by affording basic needs such as food, shelter and clothing, citizens live a dignified life. Finally, basic income will promote mental health. Poverty and social injustice can lead to poor mental health and related illnesses.
Vincent Nyoike is a Kenyan research writer with vast writing experience. He is a graduate of the University of Eldoret with a degree in Applied Statistics with Computing. He has also pursued a course in Certified Public Accountant. From his experience in business, he enjoys writing on finance and business topics, with a particular focus on Africa. He also works on SEO projects for private international organisations.
Universal Basic Income (UBI) is making significant progress in Brazil, according to the following letter former Senator Eduardo Suplicy sent to leaders of BIEN. (See also: Maricá one step from Universal Basic Income):
my dear friends of BIEN:
Let me inform you what I consider another positive step in favor of the Citizen’s Basic Income, Universal and Unconditional. Yesterday we had municipal elections in all Brazilian cities. As a candidate for being reelected citycouncilman I got 167.552 votes, the most voted candidate for a citycouncilman in the city of São Paulo or in any other city of Brazil.
It is also a very good news for the objectives of BIEN that the Mayor of Maricá, Fabiano Horta of the PT (Worker’s Party), who has started the institution of a Basic Income, has been reelected with 88% of the votes. Since December 2019, ¼ of the population of 162 thousand people, 42.500 inhabitants started to receive a Basic Income of 300 mumbucas per month, a social money (each mumbuca is equal to one real – each dollar is equal to R$ 5.42). By December 2020, ½ of the population will be receiving it and by 2024 the whole population of Maricá will be receiving the Citizen’s Basic Income.
I have already informed you that last July 21st, 220 federal deputies and senators formed the Parliamentary Front in Defense of the Basic Income. The President João Henrique Campos invited me to be the President of Honor due to the fact that I am the author of the Law 10.835/2004 that institutes, step by step, starting with those most in need, the Citizen’s Basic Income.
Therefore, Brazil is moving, step by step, towards UBI.
On September 19, 2020, people marched for UBI all over the world even in New Orleans where a steady rain came down all day. This blog post has videos and pictures from the march. It was an honor for me to be asked to speak to this group of people who came out on the rain and stayed out for several hours even as the rain kept coming. It was great to think that we were one small part of a march that took place all over teh world–on all six of the inhabited continents. Next year: UBI march Antarctica! Meet me there.
A three-year-long project documenting the impact of a small basic income trial in the United States is entering its final stages before release. Director Conrad Shaw said the goal of this project was not solely about what a permanent basic income system would look like, but more so a means to “explore what people do with extra unconditional cash.”
Aside from the financial struggles in the early stages, Shaw appreciates the series of events that occurred, which allowed the project to be illustrative of what a real basic income might look like in a crisis. Whether it be the hurricanes or the ongoing pandemic, a string of “scenarios” presented themselves and provided the perfect conditions to see where basic income can really make an impact during uncertain times.
“It’s just crazy how things lined up in the last several years, to give a lot of very poignant case studies,” he said.
The most dramatic changes Shaw’s team observed were the participant’s relationships and their psyche. Other than the day-to-day differences, the boost in self-confidence and change in their whole demeanor at the end of the trial held the most significance to Conrad.
“There’s an element of confidence that comes along with just being able to try what you want to try, to be able to take those shots,” Shaw said when asked to elaborate on the psychological effects the participants experienced. He said basic income allowed people to feel like they have always got a way to plan and move forward.
“People felt free to pursue the things that they wanted to for a very long time,” he said.
An important aspect of making the cash “unconditional” was to make sure the process was not something participants did not have to jump through hoops or constantly think about. They also wanted to make sure the recipients were not only using the money to pay for health care.
When asked about what he would do differently and what his future projects would be, Shaw said he wished there is more political movement on basic income going forward. He said he was disappointed that presidential candidate Andrew Yang was not able to take his basic income policy further in the Democratic primary.
While Shaw said the passage of basic income will be highly influenced by the political climate, he said he hopes that future work can evaluate the possible combined impact of universal health care and basic income when provided together.
Nonetheless, Shaw said he wanted to come at the project from a neutral academic view by choosing participants from a wide array of backgrounds across the United States. He said the project was a success in that it demonstrated the possibly life-changing effects of basic income for some recipients while leaving it up to the audience to interpret the results.
“The sort of the transition between before and during and after basic income was very dramatic; they were in a very different place after than when than one they started so you know, just objectively it seemed like a pretty significant potentially permanent sort of change,” Shaw said.