Comment: Basic income must be only one part of poverty-reduction plans

The provincial government is currently considering the most buzzed-about public-policy idea in many years: a basic income for all British Columbians. The government’s expert committee on basic income was seeking public feedback on the idea until Friday.

It’s not a surprise that basic income has recently gained such popularity. When faced with serious issues such as deep poverty and a changing labour market, policy wonks and communities alike are searching for solutions.

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In the conversation that has unfolded since the B.C. government began talking about basic income, many important viewpoints have been shared about potential benefits and drawbacks. These have been excellently articulated by the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition, and include positives such as reduced stigma for recipients of government supports, and concerns such as the risk of dismantling existing public services.

But in addition to the overall benefits and drawbacks, it’s important to acknowledge the particular policy context here in B.C. The provincial government is currently doing work in two other areas that are connected to basic income: poverty reduction and fair wages.

After decades of tireless advocacy by many British Columbians, we have a provincial poverty-reduction plan in the works. The Poverty Reduction Strategy Act was passed last November, and the provincial government began rolling out pieces of its implementation in both the 2018 and 2019 budgets. Under the act, the government commits to reduce poverty by 25 per cent for all residents and by 50 per cent for children by the year 2024, relative to 2016 poverty levels. Greater policy action on poverty-reduction measures is expected in the coming weeks and months.

At the same time, the government’s Fair Wages Commission is studying wage issues in B.C. The Fair Wages Commission was established in the fall of 2017 to advise government on how best to increase and manage minimum wages in the province. The commission’s two reports to date have opened up a much-needed discussion about what comprises a decent wage, and also led to the government’s roadmap to reach a $15.20-per-hour minimum wage in 2021. The commission’s third and final piece of work will focus on how to “address the discrepancy between the minimum wage and a living wage in our province.”

Where these policy areas intersect is in making sure that all British Columbians can access a decent standard of living in their communities. Whether we make ends meet using paid employment, informal work arrangements, existing government supports or a basic income — or some combination of these — we all deserve a quality of life that allows us to work and play where we live.

This premise is illustrated by the work of the Living Wage for Families Campaign. Each year, we co-ordinate recalculating the hourly living wage — the amount that a family of four would need to be able to get by in their community — in more than 20 regions across the province. As of 2018, the living wage varied from $16.51 per hour in B.C.’s north central region to $20.91 per hour in Metro Vancouver. The living wage for the capital region was $20.50 per hour. Living wages for 2019 will be available in April.

What the living-wage calculation really tells us is the cost of living in a community. We calculate the costs that a family would expect to pay for expenses such as housing, food, child care and transportation. We then factor in both provincial and federal taxes, transfers and other supports that the family would receive. In the end, the calculation shows how much income the family would need to afford to live in their community.

Whether the provincial government chooses to implement a basic-income program or not, the fact remains that many families in our province are struggling. Just under half a million British Columbians are living in poverty, including one in four who work but don’t make enough to live on. Moreover, one in five B.C. children continues to grow up in poverty, many of whom live with parents who work full-time.

Wages and government programs are inherently linked when it comes to the effect on families. Should B.C. implement a basic income program, it would have to comprise only part of an accountable, bold and comprehensive poverty-reduction strategy, and would need to also take into account the forthcoming work of the Fair Wages Commission.

It’s certainly exciting that our government is taking concerns of poverty and low wages so seriously that it has initiated three processes to better understand their diverse impacts.

Let’s make sure that these three streams of poverty reduction, fair wages and basic income work together to ensure that any solutions put forward are comprehensive, efficient and truly effective at improving the quality of life of all British Columbians.

Halena Seiferling is the campaign organizer for the Living Wage for Families Campaign and holds a master’s degree in public policy from Simon Fraser University.

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