This year’s “Brave New Work” summit, run by SFU’s Public Square, examined the role that “work” will play in the future. In the talk Basic Income: Progressive Hopes and Neoliberal Realities, John Clarke, an anti-poverty organizer at the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, discussed universal basic income (UBI), a form of income support. Responders were Jenna van Draanen, a UBC post-doctoral sociologist; Michal Rozworkski, a self-proclaimed ”lefty economist”; Trish Garner, a BC Poverty Reduction coalition activist with a PhD in gender, sexuality, and women’s studies; and Duane Fontaine, a SFU PhD candidate with a background in accounting.
Pilot projects for UBI range from the UK, Sweden, and Dauphin, a small town in Manitoba, during the ‘70s. The current BC NDP and Green coalition government opened an inquiry into UBI through the formation of the Fair Wages Commission.
The argument against UBI
Clarke’s view was that UBI would not only be in the wrong direction, pulling resources and attention away from more important struggles, but would contribute to the continued exploitation of workers. While he is anti-capitalist, stating that “I don’t believe the rich should be rich,” he admits that capitalism will not die from social policy, and that the social struggle must continue.
Quoting the historical basis of “dispos[ing] the peasantry and their land” to force them to work in factories and industries, he argued that even the current system degrades people, making welfare payments and eligibility unpleasant enough to push people into the workplace.
While he acknowledged that while many Canadians are going through difficult times, and that he, “feels for them,” he will not support UBI.
He mentioned ongoing social struggles against capital, such as the national fight for a $15 minimum hourly wage, protests from McDonald’s and Amazon employees, and the success of some German unions for a 28-hour work week. Invoking the “Spirit of ‘45” (referring to the post-WWII British boom in social services such as the National Household Service, council homes, public schools), he argued that we must fight for “free, expandable, accessible public services,” and against “bureaucracy and moral policing.”
UBI as an equalizer
Jenna van Draanen presented opposition to Clarke’s points, focusing on UBI being a step forward by giving agency to the labour market. She argued that the current system leaves behind people of colour, women, the disabled, and the unpaid labour force, whereas UBI could give space to workers looking for better jobs, increase bargaining power, and humanize the current system.
She summarized it with “what if, in 1947, Tommy Douglas held back because [universal healthcare] wasn’t perfect? Because it doesn’t have perfect, equitable services and dental? What we have isn’t perfect, but it’s better.”
“[UBI] is for all of us and we’re stronger together.” – Jenna van Draanen
Is UBI beyond Canada’s means?
Economist Rozworkski, supporting Clarke’s arguments, argued that current UBI projects are just PR stunts. He claimed that moving to the poverty line (approximately $20,000 per person/year, with variations) could cost $30 billion with current systems intact. Even with savings from removing redundant services like EI, and from healthier citizens, they would be a huge expense.
He dismissed claims of a “new world of work,” mentioning that articles from the 18th and 19th century claimed that machines would destroy the labour market. He states that, “capital can always find ways to exploit us” and that this fight is essentially the “terrain of the social struggle.” Proving himself as the “lefty economist,” he finished with his vision for an economy based on human needs, and that the market-based approach for the provision of these specific goods and services is wrong.
The poor reality
Garner stuck to her field of expertise (poverty reduction) and did not take an stance on UBI, something that her BC Poverty Reduction Coalition, an association between more than 400 individual organizations, does not do either.
However, she presented the human face of poverty, with the sobering facts that BC has 678,000 living in poverty, one in five kids living in poverty, and that BC is the last province without a unified poverty reduction plan. Currently, with welfare providing $710 per month, which is only 40% of the money required to surpass the poverty line.
“[There is] deep, deep poverty [maintained] here in BC.” – Trish Garner
She presented a thought-provoking video from her organization about a man applying for permanent medical disability payments, the highlights of which involved three 45-minute phone calls for the paperwork, a 94-page online form to receive the application, two months preparing documents, and more than a year’s wait to hear back, only to have the office claim to have never received the papers, and finally to declare them all to be expired, promoting a restart of the entire process.
She ended by stating that a UBI project would be a huge jump, one that society probably cannot achieve. She proposed, like Clarke, a “British” approach; an expansion of universal services like childcare, and later free housing, information access, food, and transport, with a total estimated cost of 2% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). She argues that while 2% of GDP is not trivial, it is a small cost to prevent the perpetuation of societal issues into the market system by feeding welfare needs with cash.
The role of technology in the debate
Finally, Fontaine examined automation and the sustainability of the current system. He argued that robots might be different from previous machines because artificial intelligence and computers challenge both manual dexterity, handiwork and physical skills, and creativity, the one human faculty remaining.
He claimed that the current system of jobs is ecologically unsustainable, since while society is relatively more efficient, the absolute amount of resources needed to sustain the economy is increasing, given the exponential increases in population and consumption. Thus, a UBI system could be an emancipatory solution, allowing a return to non-consumptive leisure time, such as increased engagement with democratic institutions.
The core of the debate boiled down to whether a universal basic income was going to be the social policy that would reduce poverty, or if it would just add more costs with little results. Clarke viewed it as a neoliberal attack, allowing a low-wage, precarious work environment to sustain itself, since it would “top-up” low wage jobs. Others agreed that it is imperfect, but in the right direction. While more money would make any individual at least a little better off, it is evident from the talk that citizens must start to engage the government in a healthy debate so that the living conditions of fellow citizens and residents are not forgotten and buried.