Sheila Regehr has been chair of the Basic Income Canada Network since 2014. She’s a retired federal public servant with years of experience working on income security, and past executive director of the National Council of Welfare. With the federal Speech from the Throne coming up today, she explains how a basic income builds up communities, reduces anxiety, and makes a whole host of problems easier to solve—including the climate crisis.
The Energy Mix: What’s the basic argument for a basic income?
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Regehr: That’s the most difficult question to start with because it’s so all-encompassing. The very basic idea is that everyone is part of society and the economy. Everyone should be able to participate and benefit from it. In our modern world that takes money. It’s a matter of human rights and dignity, and it’s a common good, the idea of sharing resources.
But our systems of income security and social protection don’t do that nearly well enough. That’s why we see what COVID has just magnified enormously for us, that we’ve got these problems of poverty, inequality, insecurity, anxiety, systemic discrimination that we’ve been fighting for a long time but obviously haven’t made very many dents.
That plays out in precarious employment, and one of the things we notice is that Alberta is a heavy user of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) because of the particular situation in the fossil fuel industry and the layoffs due to COVID. But young people are another vulnerable demographic segment that’s really been helped by CERB. You’ve got young people entering a labour market that is very challenging for them, and nothing in the future looks better, particularly with companies now automating more in response to COVID.
Then you have the societal disruption, the over-policing, and the physical and mental health crises that were afflicting us before COVID hit. And people who come to it from the food security community, knowing that food banks aren’t the answer. Incomes are the answer.
In all of these situations and more, a basic income ensures there’s a foundation for everyone. It doesn’t solve everything, but it makes problems easier to tackle, and climate change is one of them.
The Mix: How So?
Regehr: When you have so much poverty and insecurity and social disruption, you’re not going to get the kind of social solidarity you need to tackle a really big issue like climate change. The more you lower the temperature on all of these problems and make it easier for people to cooperate, to not operate from a position of fear, the easier you make everything.
If you think of a child with asthma, we know that shutting down coal plants is going to be a great thing. But it’s a longer-term, bigger-picture solution, and there’s only so much that child and that child’s parents can do about it. What they can do, if they have the economic resources, is to help mitigate that child’s environment. So if it’s a low-income situation where the house is riddled with mould, where the living circumstances are terrible, where the parents may not be able to afford the inhalers the child needs, the timing matters. We can never forget that when we’re dealing with human beings, we have to eat every day and get up the next day and do it again. So we need that support as we try to deal with these larger issues.
The Mix: How do we respond to that reality?
Regehr: It really is a matter of thinking through the issues. People are constantly saying we have to pick one thing or another. The priority has to be this or that. And all of these false dichotomies are not helping any of us. We have to find ways to understand how all these things are connected and work on them all, within a framework of what the ultimate goals are and where we’re going. It’s not either today or tomorrow. It’s not either basic income or the transition to greener jobs. They’re all part of the puzzle.
The Mix: With the Throne Speech coming up, what kind of response are you expecting?
Regehr: I don’t know. I’m biting my nails just waiting to see. There are positive signals, but it’s the larger social justice, just recovery movement that’s having an impact. The Liberal caucus has made a basic income its top priority, and our new finance minister has actually written a book about the need for a new New Deal, a social contract for society and the economy that is different from what we have now. It would be really hard for her to walk that back too much.
There are skeptics who see all kinds of reasons this is going to be too hard and we can’t do it, but those voices aren’t very important anymore. It seems to me that the pressure for a basic income is really coming from regular people. It’s coming from constituents of these MPs who are anxious, from very broadly-based social justice movements, and from the patterns we see out there indicating that without something like a basic income, the problems with COVID and its economic impact are going to get much worse. If I were in government, that’s not something I would want to have on my shoulders.
So we’ll get some interesting, vague signals in Throne Speech, because that’s the nature of the beast, and then the next thing will be to see what’s in the budget and what legislation derives from that. In a minority government, that becomes the critical confidence measure.
The Mix: You’ve been working on a basic income. The climate community has been advocating for a just transition for the fossil fuel work force. How do the two policy goals support each other?
Regehr: Naomi Klein says she’s worried about climate change, and she’s just as worried about what happens to people in this brutal economy. That for me is why it’s so important that we support each other.
People face hurricanes and forest fires, they lose so much, and they have so little income security to help them cope. Then we need a more deliberate transition to new, greener ways of working and living, but when you have too little income you don’t have the ability to make those choices. Transitions in general are incredibly difficult for humans, and in situations where that security is not there, where making any kind of change means you stand to lose everything, you can pretty much guarantee that things are not going to go well.
One of the key results we’ve seen from basic income programs and pilots is that they help people through a whole range of transitions, including from jobs or sectors that have little future. Again, we need to remember that at this very human level, people need to be able to eat and have a roof over their heads right now, so they can figure out what planning for the future looks like. If we have these grand plans, they’re not going to go far if people are constantly anxious, can’t plan ahead, and see the future as a place of fear rather than a place of opportunity. That’s not a good place to try to get constructive action in any field, particularly in such a challenging area as climate change.
In Regent Park in downtown Toronto, there are people in the basic income movement who are also trying to get community gardens growing. One of their biggest challenges is that people don’t have time and money to volunteer and do that work. If they had a basic income, they could make an enormous difference to that neighbourhood. They’d be living sustainably, creating a better environment in their community, and having agency over what they’re doing.
The Mix: Just like climate action and decarbonization, the campaign for a basic income has faced a lot of misinformation and misleading critique. What are some of the main issues you’ve had to address, and how have you responded?
Regehr: One of the biggest ones is this worry that people won’t work, either that they’ll withdraw from the paid labour force, or that they’ll just prefer to sit home with a very marginal, poverty line income and play video games. We hear this all the time. What’s fascinating is that, in all the pilot projects that have been done historically and today, going back to the 1970s, they keep looking for it and can’t find it. The reason they can’t find it is that it’s not there.
What we’re looking at here is a very different phenomenon, and that’s discrimination. When you look at the history of racism, there’s this consistent pattern of people in privilege trying to justify their position by attributing moral and other deficiencies to those they’re disadvantaging. So as waves of immigrants came into the United States, the moment the Black people were freed, they became lazy. When Italians and Irish people came in, they were lazy. When Jewish people started coming in, they had other problems. It was all grounded in discrimination. It was a way to label people to justify a system that is really, blatantly unfair.
I think we also listen to economists too much and other disciplines not enough. When you actually ask people whether they would quit work if they had a basic income, they almost always say, of course not! There are so many reasons a job is important. You’re contributing something. You have colleagues. You’re an expert in your field. It gives you satisfaction to go and do something that people find important. But when you ask the question differently, they’re worried that other people will be lazy.
This also ties in with an economy that isn’t set up to recognize in any tangible way the really important non-market work that people do, and how essential it is to everything that goes on. The assumption is that your first job is to go to work for somebody else, for somebody else’s priority and benefit, largely, but raising your family and taking care of your community is just incidental. It doesn’t really matter. So it’s not built into our system of national accounts.
The second issue we get, of course, is that we can’t afford it. The answer is that, clearly, we can. The costs of our current system are enormous, and they’re not getting us anything. So the resources are there for us—it’s a matter of redesigning, repurposing, and using our financial resources so we actually get a positive return on investment. That becomes much more affordable than the escalating costs of poverty, inequality, social unrest, and lost opportunity.
There’s a lot of talk now about the need for tax reform so that the wealthy, especially the extremely wealthy, pay their fair share in society, and that’s part of how you fund a basic income. But those articles don’t go the next step, which is how you redistribute that money, how we give back to the people who’ve been disadvantaged in the process of your wealth accumulation.
The Mix: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Regehr: One of the other issues we see is the entrenched view of charity as the way to deal with poverty, rather than seeing social justice as an answer. Some people are saying more services would be a better alternative to an adequate income, but again, it’s not an either/or. You need income and you need good public services, and you can’t replace that income with services. It’s paternalistic. You don’t treat adults that way. You don’t limit their choices and make decisions for them. The reluctance of some people who call themselves progressives to actually trust people with income is something I find astounding.
But I see huge social collaboration and mutual support across all kinds of issues, and it’s growing. We’re all working for a better economic system than the current one based on competition instead of cooperation, where natural resources and human labour are seen to be free and exploitable. We don’t have true measures of well-being. We’re all looking for a new system based on social justice and a just transition, and in the hopeful scenario for the Speech from the Throne, I see a really big, growing movement of ordinary people that leaders can’t ignore anymore.