But no one has been willing to transform that radical concept into actual policy. Society has never gotten past its visceral objection to paying what amounts to a monthly salary to an adult who hasn’t punched the clock. The notion of equal pay for equal work is now generally accepted, but basic pay for no work is another matter altogether.
That mindset, however, may be starting to soften. Last month, Finland launched a social experiment that will see 2,000 unemployed people receive a monthly, no-questions-asked payment of about $785. Later this year, in a similar experiment, Ontario is expected to begin a pilot program to understand if providing a small basic income not only improves the lives of the poor, but brings positive impacts across society by paring bureaucracy, improving education outcomes, slashing health care and social-service costs and perhaps even reducing unemployment.
Where all this will lead remains anyone’s guess. But this is a worthy experiment that should be approached with an open mind. It’s not as if any government anywhere has come up with a successful remedy to poverty and its wide-ranging impacts on society. The exact costs of poverty — both direct and indirect — to Canadian taxpayers is debatable, but experts generally agree it is in the tens of billions of dollars annually.
This stress on the public purse can be relieved by guaranteed-income programs that lift people out of poverty, proponents argue. A monthly cheque can eliminate the complexity and expense of multiple social programs that are bound by bureaucratic red tape. It can ensure proper housing and food and help build a healthier society. It can create a new class of consumers to provide an across-the-board boost to the economy. It can imbue a basic sense of economic security and fundamental dignity to encourage people towards better education and job-skill development in order to advance in the workplace.
But beyond these potential economic benefits, governments and the people who elect them have a moral responsibility to the poor. It is fundamental and inescapable. That means confronting issues of poverty first and foremost in a spirit of Christian generosity.
The premise behind a guaranteed basic income is that every person should be invited to share in the planet’s prosperity. All of society should heartily endorse that principle, not because it might make it more prosperous but because it is the Christ-like thing to do.