What Might a Basic Income Guarantee Mean for Women Living in Poverty in Canada?
Money. Money for a single mom to buy clothing and healthy food for her kids and herself and live in a decent home; money for a woman to take her children, leave her abusive partner and make it on her own; money for her to go back to school; money for transportation, child care, emergency health costs; money for her to start the business she’s always dreamed of owning; money that gives value to unpaid and undervalued ‘women’s work’. . . and money to live with choices, dignity and respect, without the stigma of a punitive social assistance system.
By Melodie McCullough
Joëlle Favreau has spent 17 years working to help put food on the tables of low-income families. In all that time, she can’t remember anything as promising as the idea of a basic income guarantee to alleviate poverty and make a difference in the lives of those families.
“People are comparing it to the fight for medicare,” said Favreau, who works as Community Development Supervisor at YWCA Peterborough Haliburton and manager of the Nogojiwanong/Peterborough, Ontario, Nourish Project. “We have a lot of indicators it could make a lot of impact around poverty. I think it provides an element of hope and I think that’s important. It’s worth fighting for.”
“… the current system is utterly broken.”: Joëlle Favreau
It’s especially promising for women, she said, because they are more likely to live in poverty.
“Women don’t have a monopoly on poverty, but statistics clearly illustrate the face of poverty often is a woman’s face,” Favreau said.
Statistics provided by the Canadian Women’s Foundation (CWF) show 1.5 million women in Canada live on a low income, and some groups are much more likely to live in poverty than others. For example, 37% of First Nations’ women living off reserve live in poverty, 28% of visible minority women live in poverty, 33% of women with disabilities live in poverty, 21% of single-parent mothers live in poverty, and 16% of single senior women live in poverty.
“The CWF recognises that the implementation of a basic income guarantee could have many positive impacts for women living in poverty,” said Chanel Grenaway, former director of economic development programs at CWF, in an email to JOURNEY Magazine. “There is data that demonstrates that moderately increasing the incomes of people living in poverty can have a big impact on their health, educational attainment and participation in the work force.”
“And the current system is utterly broken,” said Favreau. “People suffer and can’t put food on the table. When in a food-insecure household, it is the mother who sacrifices and goes without, and who is compromised of food to support the rest of the family.”
A University of Toronto report shows almost 34% of female, lone-parent households are food-insecure – a marker of deprivation – and this has a huge impact on children.
But statistics on food insecurity also show that as soon as someone turns 65 and starts receiving a government Old Age Pension, their food insecurity is cut in half, said Favreau.
“Poverty costs us dearly, and we know prevention costs less than treating acute issues. A basic income guarantee is an opportunity to put that money up front so people can live better,” she continued.
What is a Basic Income Guarantee?
The idea of a basic income — one that ensures everyone has sufficient income to meet their basic needs and live with dignity, regardless of their work status (See statement from Peterborough’s Basic Income Network below) -– is taking hold in Canada.
Ontario is scheduled to launch its Basic Income Pilot in Hamilton, Brantford, Brant County, Thunder Bay and its surrounding area in late spring, 2017, and in Lindsay in the fall, 2017. The three-year study will test how a basic income might improve the health, education and job prospects of those living on low incomes. People living in the chosen areas will be randomly selected to apply.
According to the Ontario government website, following a tax credit model, Ontario Basic Income Pilot participants will receive up to $16,989 per year for a single person, less 50% of any earned income, and up to $24,027 per year for a couple, less 50% of any earned income. People with a disability will also receive up to $500 per month on top. Existing benefits for participants on social assistance will remain.
Provincially and federally there are already basic income programs that benefit children under 18 and those over 65. (Old Age Security, Guaranteed Income Supplement, Ontario Guaranteed Annual Income System). It is the low- income earners – the ‘working poor’ — aged 18 to 64, who would benefit most.
So, how could it help women?
A starting point for many is that is comes down to two simple words: dignity and choice.
“It gives women more choices, more options, more opportunities for the future.”: Christine Post.
Our present social-welfare system -– needs-based and means-tested — has been called parsimonious, judgmental, demeaning, complex and bureaucratic, making a basic income guarantee an appealing alternative.
“Generally, the concept would help to reduce the stigma of people living under the poverty line,” said Kirsten Armbrust, manager of professional counselling at Peterborough’s Community Counselling and Resource Centre. “There is a societal stigma of people not understanding people’s circumstances. Children living in poverty face stigma at school and it affects them socially.”
Related: Poverty in Our Schools
“The rates of social assistance are so low that it’s really hard for people to manage,” she said. “They are expected to be looking for work, but there is little available. They always have to ‘check in’. It’s tied to ‘worthiness’. The different concept behind a basic income is that it’s a basic human right to have a certain level of income, and not have it tied to something. It requires a shift in thinking.”
Christine Post, a health promoter at Peterborough Public Health in the poverty and health program, and a member of the city’s Basic Income Network, agrees, saying it would be particularly beneficial to women because it would provide income separate from their participation in the workforce.
“It gives women more choices, more options, more opportunities for the future,” she said. “They would be able to make more decisions about how to meet both their immediate and longer-term needs, both in the home and outside of the home.”
“No one believes this will lead to gender parity … but we really do believe it will improve the situation and give women more choices and benefits, particularly, the low-income women who are in such a vulnerable situation right now,” Post said.
One of these choices surrounds domestic abuse… It could potentially reduce domestic violence, too.
One of these choices surrounds domestic abuse. Women who leave a partner to raise children alone are over five times more likely to live in poverty than if they stay with their partner, according to CWF.
“A lot of the time what keeps people in relationships is not being able to afford to leave or see how they could financially succeed,” said Armbrust. “Knowing there is a basic income would help. It would reduce one barrier to leaving. It could be a bit of a cushion until they get back on their feet”.
It could potentially reduce domestic violence, too, and improve overall health and life outcomes. During the 1970s, a basic income experiment was carried out in Dauphin, Manitoba and its results back this notion up. Funded by the Manitoba government and federal government from 1974 through 1978, it gave some Dauphin residents a guaranteed minimum level of income or “mincome,” as it came to be called.
Evelyn Forget, professor of community health science at the University of Manitoba, who has studied data from the experiment, said its most important impact was a reduction in stress caused by financial worry. When stress was reduced, so was domestic violence, workplace injuries, and hospital visits. There was a significant drop in mental illness.
Data also showed that teenage Dauphin boys stayed in school longer, because they no longer needed jobs to help support their families. The interesting thing is that their girlfriends also ended up staying in school longer, delayed marriage and child birth and had fewer children over their lifetime. Women in Dauphin were the ones who reduced their work hours — after child birth, they stayed home longer to care for their young children. All these results are associated with better health outcomes and improved life chances, said Forget.
Why Are Women Poor?
Simply put, they earn less. But it’s important to realize how women’s poverty can be intertwined with many other factors and their unique labour circumstances.
Christine Post shares these points:
Women who work full-time earn about 74 cents for every dollar earned by men in Canada. This number is even lower for some groups, such as racialized or Indigenous women.
On average, a woman in Ontario earns $33,600 annually, while a man earns $49,000 (2011).
The majority of minimum wage earners in Ontario are women. It is estimated that women account for more than 57% of minimum wage workers, though they account for just over 49% of all employees.
Women remain over-represented in traditional areas of female employment. 27% of employed women in Canada work in lower-income earning sales and service occupations. Women account for more than nine out of 10 administrative assistants, registered nurses, and registered psychiatric nurses, early childhood educators and assistants and receptionists (2013).
Women are more likely to have part-time work, and have accounted for seven out of 10 of part-time employees in Canada since the late 1970s, often because they are caring for young children.
Women are likely to have precarious employment, temporary, casual, contract jobs. About 40% of women work in precarious jobs that are generally poorly paid with little or no job security and no benefits such as pensions.
Women with disabilities, Aboriginal women, new Canadians, or from racialized groups are particularly vulnerable to unemployment, low incomes and precarious employment.
The “Caring” Component
Then there is the “caring” component, as Favreau calls it. It’s the fact that women do most of the domestic and caring work, often unvalued and unpaid, such as volunteering, meal preparation, house work and caring for other family members – children, the elderly, and the disabled. This affects their access to paid work.
It’s important to realize how women’s poverty can be intertwined with many other factors and their unique labour circumstances.
“A basic income could provide income security,” Favreau said. “It would mean that women’s unpaid work in the home and community is recongised to have value. If they’re working, it could supplement some of those insecure wages – part-time, casual, and with no benefits. Or they could start an entrepreneurial business. It would allow them to take risks to invest in their future.”
Would it work?
A basic income guarantee is not without its critics. The model, chosen from numerous suggested varieties, and its details are important for its success. And it will, of course, be expensive.
Some worry that a change of government could end a basic income program after only a few years, which is what happened with the Dauphin, Manitoba project.
Others are leery of a possible neo-liberal approach which could see a government provide a basic income and then abdicate all responsibility for any other universal social services.
That’s why the Canadian Women’s Foundation says a basic income guarantee is not the only solution and it should be explored in combination with other forms of social service supports, including safe and affordable housing, affordable child care, and accessible training and education programs.
And it’s why Peterborough’s Basic Income Network says other services, benefits and supports must be continued (e.g. Dental benefits, housing supports, child care subsidies, ODSP supports etc.) under any plan.
Joelle Favreau gets the last word:
The present social safety net system in Canada is based on the idea that there will always be full employment, she explained. It was created in the 1960s when it was considered an anomaly for someone to be out of a job.
“Now the system clearly is different,” she said. “There is precarious work. People are working more than one job. There is high unemployment, and lots of studies show that automation will make many more jobs disappear.”
Related: Ottawa warned about job losses that could stem from automation. Rise of machines means Canadian economy could lose between 1.5 million and 7.5 million jobs in coming years.
“The anomaly is becoming more and more of the norm, so the old way of organizing social assistance doesn’t make sense any more,” said Favreau. “The economy has shifted significantly, yet we are using an archaic, broken-down system to address its issues.”
“I don’t see a basic income as the only thing,” Favreau summed up. “I see it has to be put into place with combined support for all. I think social assistance rates should be increased. It would make a difference. But that still doesn’t address the issue of people wanting agency and dignity.”
“A basic income guarantee is a way to rethink the system and do it in a way that will build equity and fairness into it. It’s not a panacea, but it could have an tremendous impact on people’s lives if it’s done well.”
Open Letter on Basic Income Guarantee Principles from the Basic Income Peterborough Network
A Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) pilot project is coming to Ontario. A Basic Income Guarantee is one that ensures everyone has sufficient income to meet their basic needs and live with dignity, regardless of their work status. When people have enough money to maintain a reasonable quality of life, there is improvement in their own physical and mental health and the health of the community. We believe in a Basic Income Guarantee that follows these principles:
No one involved in the BIG pilot project, nor anyone participating in the program, once it is developed, should be any worse off than they are now. This means that other services and supports must be continued (e.g. Dental benefits, housing supports, child care subsidies, ODSP supports etc.) and that the amount of income which is provided takes into account the real cost of living and is enough to adequately live on.
Basic Income should be available for anyone and everyone, who has an income below a set level. This means that there should be no debt level requirements, no proof of job search, etc.
BIG does not take away the need for increases in minimum wage, pay equity, or other ways working can make sure a person’s life get better. A Basic Income is meant to help people, not act as a subsidy for those wishing to pay people less than human effort is worth.
BIG must be provided to Indigenous communities in a way that respects their autonomy, and allows them to say how it is delivered in their communities.
BIG must recognize all basic needs in Canada. These include: food, housing, clothing, transportation, and internet/communication services.