In June this year, I had the opportunity to attend both a roundtable on guaranteed annual income hosted by the Senate Sub-Committee on Cities, and the Basic Income International Congress in Ireland. Both were very interesting events, and helpful in exploring the possibility of a guaranteed livable income (GLI) for Canadians. There were a number of common themes: the question of whether people will or should work if they have income security, and the issue of cost.
These are important factors in deciding whether a GLI is a good idea. But discussions rarely seem to consider the key assumptions underlying so many arguments on these topics. In this series of web features, I want to take a closer look at these issues, to deconstruct some of the assumptions. What do we really mean when we ask these questions?
In this week’s feature, let’s start by looking at the question: If we promise people a guaranteed income, will they work?
At the Senate roundtable, one of the participants suggested that if he had access to income security as a young person, he would have spent all day at the pool hall, never making something of himself. His argument was that everyone is similarly motivated to become involved in society and to participate in the paid labour force for the sake of money. Whether the speaker intended it or not, the conclusions to be drawn from such a belief are: a) that making people desperately poor is the only way to drive them to be useful and productive members of society, and b) that if people fail to participate in the paid labour force, it is okay for us to let them starve.
I will deal more with the second conclusion in my next web feature, but consider the first point for a moment. Is it really true that the only thing that motivates people to work is money?
I can safely say from personal experience that’s not the case. Work gives me income to live on, but that’s not why I do it. I love my job, and I derive a lot of personal satisfaction from doing it. Many others are also motivated by the opportunity to participate in a larger project, to achieve goals, to use skills and talents in particular areas, to benefit from the unique social interactions that exist in a workplace. For many people, work is an important expression of their identity.
At the Senate committee hearing, Senator Wilbert Keon helpfully suggested that if young people really refuse to work and pursue goals, we shouldn’t punish them with poverty. They should have access to psychological help. The Senator recognized that it is unfair to punish all Canadians because some people might not be motivated.
Beyond motivation, there is another assumption within the question of whether people will work if they have a GLI: that if people are not in the paid labour force 40 hours a week, 50 weeks of the year, they are not doing anything good or useful either for themselves or their family or their community at large.
But think for a moment about how many things you do outside of employment: looking after your children, spending time with your partner or your parents, volunteering at church or a local organization, tending a garden that provides organic vegetables and beautiful flowers, painting a neighbourhood mural, writing the Great Canadian Novel, enjoying a hike or a bike ride in the sunshine. How are these things bad for you, your family or your community?
There are so many activities that people engage in without remuneration that are important, meaningful and even necessary. Many of them are contributions to our society and even to our economy that couldn’t be quantified in dollar terms if we tried. Even leisure time helps us to restore our minds and bodies in order to maintain a healthy balance in life.
Yet when we ask “But will people work?” all of these things are overlooked. People might rely on the income security of a GLI to spend less time at the office and more time with their families. Or they could volunteer at community organizations, fill spots on local boards, and join advocacy efforts for causes they support. Or they could have time to develop artistic and creative talents, contributing to the cultural life of our country. Why are these things less important than the lowest paying jobs we have available in Canada?
When we consider the question of whether or not people will work if they have a GLI, let’s not forget the context: work is about more than wages.