This web feature is Part IV in a series looking at the assumptions we have about guaranteed livable income. The first feature deconstructed the question of whether people would work if they had income security. Part II examined the issue of whether people have a right to income security, regardless of activity. Part III considered the availability of jobs in Canada, and concluded that it is not reasonable to assume every person can have a job that will meet their needs.
In the first three web features in this series, we examined the issue of what counts as work and whether or not people have a right to have their basic needs met regardless participation in paid employment. We also considered the fact that there are not enough jobs for every Canadian who wants one. These are two powerful arguments against attaching employment conditions to GLI. But there is a third, equally powerful argument: a GLI must be unconditional because we aren’t all that good at making the distinctions that conditions require. Determining who is and who is not fit enough to work is not easy, and is often accomplished badly.
My husband has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Like most people with CFS, he has good days and bad days. On the bad days, even getting out of bed can be hard. Since his diagnosis, he has been off work for extended periods of time and back at work for awhile. The biggest challenge is the unpredictability of his health – he never knows when he will have a good day or a bad day. For full-time employment, when showing up every day is not optional, CFS is a significant obstacle. Yet if an uninformed observer saw him standing in line at the grocery store, they would think he looked healthy and normal.
Marie White, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, shared a similar story at the Senate Roundtable on guaranteed annual income. She has multiple sclerosis, a condition as arbitrary as CFS: “I can work for three years and suddenly I cannot work for three weeks.”
A colleague, Rob Rainer of Canada Without Poverty (formally the National Anti-Poverty Organization), described to the Senators how his daughter’s Asperger’s syndrome will present significant challenges to employment, yet it is not visible at a glance. “The idea of someone behind a Plexiglas panel making a decision about someone’s life – on what basis would they decide?” asked Rob.
There are some who believe income security programs must distinguish between those who have a disability and those who are “expected to work.” Many provincial social assistance programs already make this distinction. Even those arguing for alternatives to our present social security regime reject the idea of a guaranteed livable income (GLI) for the reason that it does not make a distinction. For instance, the Caledon Institute would support an income security program for those with disabilities but not for those expected to work.
But Rob’s point gets to the heart of the problem: how are policy makers and bureaucrats capable of deciding whether or not someone is able to engage in full-time employment? The consequences of that decision could cast someone into poverty.
The three examples above are all related to physical disabilities that are not highly visible. Now imagine how mental disabilities or mental health problems might be even less visible. How is an official who is distanced from the person able to pronounce someone ready to work or not? How does the decision contribute to the stigmas associated with needing social support or having a disability?
According to Jim Mulvale of the University of Regina, this approach is failing in Saskatchewan. “We have all kinds of problems with people getting put in the wrong program, getting deprived of necessary supports, being considered to be work ready when perhaps they are not or, in some cases, the opposite.”
The emphasis on paid employment versus full income security also prevents people from taking progressive steps to enter the workforce. Volunteering at a local organization might help some people develop the skills and self-confidence necessary to make the jump into the paid workforce, but it won’t give them income. Others might be able to handle part-time or contract work, but that won’t necessarily be enough to pay the bills and could disqualify them for social assistance or other programs.
A GLI would not disqualify people from working if they could, or from taking steps to get into the paid labour force. But it would also refrain from punishing people if they couldn’t participate in the paid workforce, for any reason, for any length of time.
The basic rights of every person demand such support. The poor track record of our capability to judge others and their ability to work suggests that employment conditions are the equivalent of condemning some people to poverty. Income security must be unconditional and universal.