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Minimum income a hand-up, not a hand-out

I don’t find myself often agreeing with Micah O’Donnell.

My column-mate in the Brunswickan recently penned an article decrying poverty, and lauding as a solution a guaranteed minimum income for all Canadians. Lo and behold, this is not a bad idea, not at all. It just needs a bit of explanation to dispel some of its more persistent myths. It also requires some bold leadership. That’s where the real problem lies.

We should all, no matter our position on the political spectrum, first acknowledge that poverty is both socially, economically, and morally repugnant. To this end, those on the left have a jump on my friends on the right—they consistently and powerfully at least acknowledge the effect that poverty has on Canada and Canadians. While their policy prescriptions for this social ill are nebulous, ill-conceived, and normally unsustainable (for example, raising the minimum wage over and over again is not a solution), at least they discuss the deleterious effects of poverty.

And what are these effects? Currently, 3.5 million Canadians are in poverty. In dollar terms, the sprawling effect of this social scourge is a whopping $72-86 billion annually. Poverty generally creates a burden on our healthcare system, is a determinate of criminal activity (which creates a crisis of overrepresentation in our prisons, particularly of aboriginal people), and an obvious lack of critical mass for skilled workers. This is a national scandal of sorts, and all people should want to do something about it.

Between provincial and federal schemes, some overlapping and some interlocking, poverty has engendered a welfare state of epic proportions, which only grows year over year. This is not financially sustainable—not without cutting these very entitlements, or by raising taxes on Canadians. Neither are politically or economically desirable.

So, what is the best way to respond to this national scandal? This is where the minimum income idea comes in. Contrary to its appearance, this is not some pie-in-the-sky idea. In fact, this is an idea advanced by some prominent conservatives, and it’s actually rooted in a sustainable way of thinking about welfare entitlements. The whole idea behind it is that all people in Canada should have the chance to make something of themselves. In our country of bounty, there should be no people who can’t succeed if they have the drive, skills, and want to do so.

The minimum income idea, in its various formulations, would generally set a poverty line threshold. Without getting into specifics, anybody below this certain line would receive a minimum income yearly proportionate to their poverty, in dollars. In return, we could theoretically scrap the complex, expensive welfare programs that simply put people in a never ending cycle. The minimum income is a hand-up, not a hand-out like the current system.

In theory this sounds great, but we need the political will. Problems arise right out at the outset—social programs of this sort are generally administered at the provincial level. The federal government transfers funding for social programs using the federal spending power. Ultimately, if this were to be implemented on a national level, it would probably require some level of agreement. This isn’t to mention the political will it would take to even get the ball rolling in the first place.

In a perfect world, we want to give people a hand up. If only we could get our politics to actually do it.

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