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I. COVID-19 Lifted the Curtain on a Broken System

COVID-19 magnified existing social ills and flaws in our current system. From inadequacy of employment insurance, the digital divide and economic class divisions, to groups who are left behind pre-pandemic — the ones more vulnerable in the midst of the pandemic. There is now a realization that the essential frontline workers are often the ones who do not have a livable wage. The issues of seniors and children has long been neglected and have also been brought up to the surface.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought lots of flaws in our system to the surface. Existing employment insurance and welfare systems proved to be highly inadequate, inefficient and outdated for the 21st century. The food banks in the U.S. have seen long line-up with a lot of first timers , while demands in Canada are also rising. The reality of the current economic system is that a lot of people are consistently one or two pay cheques away from losing their homes and having the means to survive. Losing a job could quickly put people in a very precarious situation.

As the pandemic unfolds, some homeless end up sleeping on bus shelters or without a roof or a safe place to shelter-in-place from the pandemic. Homeless people stayed away from shelters either from fear of contracting the virus or because the shelters have closed to prevent spread. Meanwhile, people with disability are also often left out and treated under an inadequate disability social assistance system. Meanwhile, the prison became a hotspot for the propagation of COVID-19 virus. COVID-19 shone a spotlight on the over-incarceration over minor crimes that disproportionately affect minorities.

Cases of people falling into economic distress is nothing new. But the COVID-19 crisis quickly put a large number of people in the shoes of those often overlooked by our current system — the people who constantly struggle to have enough cash to put food on the table. Those who lost their jobs must contend not only with loss of income, but also the sudden loss of benefits — such as medicine or hospital costs for Americans who live in a developed country that still do not have universal health care to this day. Those who need expensive life-saving drugs are suddenly unable to afford them.

A large portion of the population suffers poverty or are economically classified as belonging to low-income earners. 28% of Canadians with under $20,000 annual income are considered poor, while 21% living below the low-income measure (LIM) — i.e. below median — are considered lower income. Therefore half of all Canadians were already struggling to get by even before the pandemic hit.

Canadian Class Division Graph

COVID-19 also exposed the fact that a lot of essential frontline workers are not getting paid enough to live. This has been the case for a long time, but nobody seems to have been paying attention nor care. Their pay are below livable wage. That is why when Canada quickly decided that $2,000 is what is needed to survive and provided Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB). The essential frontline workers who continued to work were excluded and are worse off than people staying at home to quarantine. CERB started off as being very limited and was continuously expanded after criticism for having excluded people in various groups.

A large number of low-paying frontline workers in the U.S. are also African-Americans or visible minorities . The minorities make up a smaller percentage of the population, but their community have seen higher percentages of COVID-19 related hospitalization or deaths. In Canada, reports of COVID-19 cases have shown that low-income households and those on shared housing are more prone to getting infected with COVID-19. Aside from the frontline workers, people falling under these groups were also the ones who cannot afford to have disposable income and rainy day funds, and they were the first ones to be affected with job losses. Especially worse hits are African-American single mothers, who are among the first to fall and get evicted.

Systemic Bias

Even before the COVID-19 crisis hit, wages have stagnated for decades now, and what were once mostly upper middle class are increasingly falling at the edge of lower middle class and low-income threshold. As poverty increases, crime increases. Instead of tackling the root cause of the problem, government chose to pour money into police force instead. Police who used to be the friendly neighborhood police were increasingly militarized as use of force increases. The increased use of force tends to attracts power hungry and violent individuals with abusive behaviors, including those who abuse their spouses. It also attracts white supremacists who use the force to legitimize their violent act. African-Americans and other minorities in poor neighborhoods are randomly stopped and presumed to be suspects of crimes.

Systemic bias in a society might not be overt. But minorities are more likely to become impoverished. And those who are impoverished (minority or not) are at higher risk of falling into crime (whether having crime committed against them or being manipulated or controlled by criminals and crime organizations). Minorities are also more likely to be stopped for random searches. Minor possession of marijuana or addictive substance from random searches often lands the mostly poor people and minorities in jail. The incarcerated population disproportionately consists of large numbers of impoverished indigenous people in Canada or minorities in the United States. Meanwhile, white-collar crime that cheated main street investors out of billions through fraud like subprime mortgage have largely avoided prosecution.

As people work from home, the lower-wage workers, who are unable to work from home, were the first ones to be laid off without pay. As classes go online, the digital rift between the have and have nots were exposed. Schools scramble to provide for low-income households who don’t have good internet bandwidth or devices for online classes. Lower income families are left behind and suffers from the digital divide. The increased prices of goods and the need to stockpile disproportionately affects the lower income and seniors. Lower income earners are often at higher risk of having chronic disease and are at higher risk of complications if they contracted the COVID-19 virus.

Increased Vulnerability to Exploitation

Spouses and kids in lower income are also more vulnerable to becoming victim of abuses. The lower income earners are more likely to be incarcerated and are also a group most vulnerable to being abused. A survey of those incarcerated shows high numbers who have been abused as a kid. This has sometimes led to false correlations that abused kids are more likely to commit crime. But the fact is a large numbers of abused kids (from low income, hostile environments and victims of pedophilia) are not more likely to commit crimes.

The constant refrain that “we are in this together” during the pandemic might ring hollow for some. The neglected migrant workers in cramped quarters, or people packed in houses so they can afford to have roof over their head, were the ones that are at a higher risk of being infected with the COVID-19 virus. The indigenous reserves in Canada, where people mostly live in cramped houses with unclean water, are at higher risk should COVID-19 reach their community. Singapore migrant workers camp and meat plant workers in Canada’s Alberta province are just a few examples.

Canada have instituted a temporary foreign worker (TFW) system to create cheap labor . Some critics fear there is a risk that this could provide a pathway for employers to keep wages low. That instead of raising wages to a fair livable level to attract and retain employees, they will just resort to temporary foreign workers. Some fear this opens these workers to exploitation and creates a system of serfdom or a second-class citizen similar to slave workers of the American sugar plantation. These second-class citizens have no chance of becoming permanent citizens and are often denied the same rights as others in the country. One migrant worker, who have seen fellow migrant workers die of COVID-19 as cases in their work place increased, was interviewed by a Canadian news program. He compared their condition to slavery. They have no health insurance and do not have similar worker’s rights as Canadians. Politicians who are anti-immigration favors such a system and claim professional skilled workers are included among the TFWs also. But Canada already have a system that awards points for skilled workers to permanently immigrate to Canada, which is a healthier way to integrate people to be part of the community with all the rights a local worker would get. There are lots of people unemployed in Canada who will be willing to work the jobs if paid a livable wage that would allow them to settle in their community, rather than constantly switching jobs, if only an employer would invest in their employee through better wages. It is equally important that there is a willingness to train rather than just quickly give up and seek low paid staff through TFW.

The world’s conflict zones threaten to be another hotspot for transmission of COVID-19 such as Africa and the Middle East. Yemen was already dealing with a cholera outbreak and now must contend with COVID-19, which will likely be underreported since their infrastructures and health facilities are in disarray. If not controlled, COVID-19 could spread to neighboring countries piling on to any existing cases. Aside from the pandemic, the income insecurity and anxiety takes a heavy mental toll on a lot of ordinary people, much more so for those on lower income. Health care workers warn about increased suicide rate. There were reports of increased suicide due to Lebanon’s economic crisis.

While the pandemic exposed the vulnerability in our support system, similar crisis exists at all times due to no one’s fault but by unfortunate turn of events. Various micro-crisis happens all the time with some worse than others. Some are individual crisis while others are either caused by nature or humans affecting the most vulnerable.

The long-time neglect in the long-term care homes for elderly and those with disability or chronic debilitating diseases have also been exposed. The constant government cuts to health care and to inspections on these facilities means years of atrocious conditions went unchecked. If the Canadian military called in to help had not became whistleblowers , their letter of concerns would still not have been publicized. They have wondered why no actions were being taken after they raised concerns over long-term care home conditions, which they have described as worse than anything they have seen overseas.

Government officials are responsible for earlier cuts to inspections, and now sit as board of directors in the multi-million dollar companies who owns these facilities. These facilities were already understaffed before the pandemic hit. In order to maximize profits, these facilities use personal support workers (PSW) who are underpaid, understaffed, overworked, unregulated and undertrained for the jobs. A lot of new immigrants and those struggling to find jobs settled for non-livable survival wage jobs being offered for PSW, having to work multiple jobs and multiple long-term care homes just to get by. The seniors, PSW and nurses (who were increasingly cut and replaced with low-paid PSW who do not get any benefits) are all casualties of profit focused, austerity minded approach of recent years.

Seniors, who did have some semblance of basic income in Canada through Old Age Security (OAS) and a Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) — top-up for poorer seniors — has seen their payment increased as part of government relief for COVID-19. The fact is before COVID-19 some seniors were already not getting the full $1,800 maximum. Seniors poverty was at a high of 30% in the 1970s before government improved OAS, GIS and the Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) that lead to reduction of seniors’ poverty to 5% in 1995. But this downward trend saw a reversal after 1995 as CPP, private pensions and benefits for the elderly stagnated. Due to the lack of new actions from the government to address the changing socio-economic landscape, seniors’ poverty rates are now on the uptrend.

BC Elderly Poverty in 1970s
Elderly Poverty - Regression Post-1995

Retirees who continue to work past their retirement should do so at their own accord rather than being forced back to work in order to survive, due to lack of good pension or pension disappearing with a company’s bankruptcy. Some are now calling for pension to be protected and managed as a separate fund and not tied to a company’s insolvency. A lot of seniors could use permanent help by becoming part of a standard basic income program that automatically adjusts with inflation and low-income measures such as LIM.

Childhood poverty are also a major concern even before the pandemic hit. Aside from the digital divide and being left behind on education compared to children from non-low income families, about 2.1 million children are at risk of hunger as COVID caused unemployment could see increased number of children relying on school breakfast programs. In Canada, the government announced reduction in child poverty due to the limited child version of basic income through Canada Child Benefit (CCB). But the problem is far from resolved as Canada still ranked number 30th of the 38th wealthiest nation in terms of support for children and youth. Three of worse federal ridings are in Manitoba with a 63% rate in child poverty . The bottom line is you cannot solve child poverty without solving poverty in general. Children that fall under the current foster system or states child welfare are not necessarily orphans. In fact, the current Canadian indigenous child welfare and foster system are often used against impoverished indigenous family, and those still struggling to recover from residential school abuses and trauma. This is increasingly coming under criticism and adds to the compounding problems from past indigenous policies such as the 60s scoop.

Years of education cuts due to austerity and ill planned budget deficit means that classroom sizes kept increasing as teachers were laid off. This reduces personal interaction and attention that a teacher can normally accord to the students, especially the younger kids. The COVID-19 crisis magnified those challenges as parents and educators ask government for more funding to reduce class sizes and reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

II. What is Old is New Again

There is an old idea that has gained a new focus as policy makers seek new solutions to tackle the flaws and shortcomings of the current system that has been exposed by the pandemic. A fix that could withstand the challenges that will remain after the pandemic and in any future crisis. The Canadian Mincome experiment, the U.S. experiments in the 1970s and past and current studies and pilots from around the world, provides enough information on how a basic income could work to help resolve the current and future crisis. This includes looking at the history of basic income that almost lead to implementations in Canada and the U.S.

There is an old idea that is new again. But it’s worth studying how it failed in the past with the hopes that we don’t fall into the same mistake again.

The Concept of Caring and the Increasing Regression

The concept is as old as the human civilization — going back to times of the hunter-gatherer society — where no one is left to go hungry unless everyone is. But as we transform to agriculture then industrial revolutions, early thinkers such as U.S. founding father Thomas Paine saw the threat of increasing inequality. To avoid any resentment that he realized would follow, he proposed a “ground rent” for every person rich or poor. This was around 1795. Others before and after him have also proposed similar proactive and preventative solutions.

Principle of Caring Society

The New Deal seems to have saved America from the worse effect of the 1930s global Great Depression. The increasing mistrust in government and social unrest was somewhat abated temporarily. President Roosevelt was able to reassure the people and stopped the panic and risk of rushed withdrawals and banks failure. Contrast that with the rising fascism, xenophobia and hatred that rode on the backs of the 1930s Great Depression to become mainstream in some parts of Europe. But by the 1960s, as economy starts to fizzle again, urban unrest in the U.S. was on the rise once more. It was triggered by a combination of economic hardship and unresolved systematic discrimination that had kept a large segment of minority poor.

The civic unrest somewhat abated with the information technology stock market boom of the 1980s and 1990s, leading to increased income and economic growth. However, Reagan’s trickle-down experiment that deregulated the New Deal era of oversight against monopoly has a long-term effect and leads to worsening inequality. Despite the economic boom due to advancement in technology, the fissure in the fabric of society remains and continued growing as wage stagnated and inequality increased.

The increasing precariousness threatens to explode from a population who felt marginalized. We saw that happen during the Arab springs where populations, long suppressed by a dictatorial government and who now faces economic hardship and a bleak future prospect, rose up despite the odds and violence exacted against them. While the current Minneapolis riot was sparked by police brutality that rekindled unresolved injustices against African-Americans for centuries, the embers underneath likely includes pent-up anger at the social and economic injustices that the people felt were getting worse.

Modern Basic Income Considerations

The increasing economic insecurities even before Reagan’s time had drove policy makers to seek new forms of socio-economic policy. The 1960s and 1970s saw several basic income experiments conducted in the U.S. with the support of more than a thousand economists. In 1974 to 1979 a basic income experiment called Mincome was conducted in the Canadian province of Manitoba with one saturated site at the town of Dauphin, where everyone is eligible to receive basic income.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. also appears to appreciate the impact that a basic income would bring. He recognized that the civil rights fights rest on lifting the oppressed from poverty. He envisioned an empowered population able to lift themselves up and challenge the systematic socio-economic injustices stacked against them. He wrote about guaranteed income in his last book as part of the solution for his Poor People’s campaign, to give people trapped in poverty a fighting chance. However, he will not be able to see through his campaign as he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

There was already recognition at that time that there will not be enough work with pay that is sufficient to meet everyone’s basic survival needs. In 1969, Canada, Ontario’s Progressive Conservative premier John Robarts stated as-much when he called for an annual guaranteed income to be considered. His Progressive Conservative federal equivalent Robert Stanfield also supports a basic income calling the existing social assistance a patchwork quilt that did not alleviate suffering nor cover those who are most in need. He states that “it is like sending a man into storm with half a raincoat”.

Dauphin Manitoba Train Station

Landmark train station in Dauphin, Manitoba that remains to this day

The closest a basic income got to being implemented nationally was Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan, which is a form of basic income. Despite Nixon’s tainted record from the Watergate scandal, he did not grew up from a wealthy family and knew how family struggling financially looked like. When he proposed his basic income plan to America, he lamented on how his parents struggled financially when his brother got sick from tuberculosis and died at age 24. His proposal, which came out of research works done by the Kennedy and Johnson era’s anti-poverty committee, passed Congress only to be blocked by bi-partisan status quo Senators. The vehement objectors included bi-partisan Senators from the South who feared the loss of workers in the plantation and people to iron their clothes (a sentiment expressed in the book “The Politics of A Guaranteed Income” by Harvard Professor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was involved in Kennedy and Johnson’s anti-poverty campaign and became Nixon’s adviser).

Nixon introduced his plan amidst growing civic unrest due to racial and social injustices. Moynihan described in his book the growing civic unrest at that time. “Social malaise” was on the rise and there were police beating “mobs”, with reported deaths in Miami and more beatings in Chicago. Young New York city scientist Paul Weaver observed that “the social fabric of New York is coming to pieces”, and “there was growing frustration and distrust”. It was widely held that the American republic was caught up in “the most serious domestic crisis since the Civil War”. In 1965, there were 4 major riots and civil disturbances (including the Watts Riots in the Watts district of Los Angeles among the Black urban population on June 4, 1965). In 1966, it rose to 21 major riots and civil disorders. By 1967, there were 83 major riots and civil disturbances in cities.

According to Moynihan, Nixon decided on the Family Assistance Plan on three propositions:

1. The poor, especially the Black poor, were being destroyed by the existing welfare system. This was becoming the most serious social problemf the time.

2. After so very long it was time to bring the South back into the mainstream of American life. The South was kept apart and the nation kept divided because of poverty.

3. It was necessary to prove that government could work. There was indeed a “crisis of confidence in the capacity of government to do its job”.

A week after Nixon’s public address introducing the Family Assistance Plan, Gallup poll showed that 65% of the public support with 20% unfavorable while 15% had no opinion.

The main players in the Nixon’s attempt to introduce a guaranteed income through Family Assistance Plan came from across the political spectrum. Such cross-partisan co-operation would increasingly become rare after Nixon. Perhaps that is why left academic Noam Chomsky called Nixon the last progressive president on 2014 during Obama’s presidency. Chomsky was frustrated with the growing wealth gap, wage stagnation and simple economic problems (where ordinary people’s consumption were increasingly reduced thereby cutting back on Main Street’s economic growth). Despite Nixon’s political failing, he did increase the minimum wage, expanded social security and food stamps benefits, and increased funding to states and municipalities. Nixon also moved desegregation forward in the South earning scorn from southern politicians and his rival Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan. He also tried to pass a comprehensive health care insurance that some claim is more progressive than Obamacare . Most of these policies would later be considered progressive policies that regressed through inaction or cuts by successive administration after him, both Democrats and Republicans.

One of the persons instrumental in getting Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan passed on Congress is Ways and Means committee chair Wilbur D. Mills, a Democrat who was a fiscal conservative. The passing in the House was hailed as “the last days of white supremacy”. Just like Nixon he was able to work through his ideological bias of giving “free money” and carefully studied the basic income proposal. When he finally fully understood the guaranteed income plan, a light bulb turned on and he became a proponent declaring:

“when we were boys and a man’s barn burned down, all the neighbors pitched in and helped him build another one. All we’re doing here is pitching in and helping this man to help himself”.

The House passed the Family Assistance Plan on April 1970. A majority of both Democrats and Republicans voted in favor with a total votes of 243 for and 155 against (Democrats voted 141 to 83 in favor, Republicans voted 102 to 72 in favor. i.e. 63% Democrats and 59% Republicans). The Southern delegation voted overwhelmingly against it (of 102 votes from the South, 79 against and 17 for). But when it reached the Senate Finance Committee headed by Democrat Senator Long, it devolves into conspiracy and misinformation. Senator Long had called welfare mothers as “brood mares”. He prefers his own “workfare” proposal that protects “the interest of Southern economic elites” (Bertram, 2015, p. 87). Senator Long fears Nixon’s guaranteed income would undermine his proposal.

While supporters came from the left and the right, it also divided civil rights groups, including social service personnel and scientists. The opponent came from both the extreme left and right. The extreme left, who by Moynihan’s account would rather see the house burn down, while the extreme right are the white Southern politicians who would rather preserve the racially divisive status quo. Senator McCarthy helped stage a public trial hearing before the Senate’s vote, tapping into the left mistrust of Nixon and using welfare mothers as witnesses to sway the Democrats to vote against it. Just like Canada’s introduction of universal health care, opposition sometimes came from those whose clients were supposed to benefit the most. Their fear for change likely complicated by a well-funded disinformation campaign. Canada’s universal health care was initially opposed by some doctors influenced by disinformation from the American health insurance industry. Nixon’s plan was strongly opposed by what Life magazine said are the “170,000 welfare bureaucrats’ resistance to change”.

As the bill dies on the Senate floor, Senator Hartke plead for support. He said, “The longer we allow a system of national failure to create a culture of personal failure, the larger the costs of redeeming ourselves will be”. The Washington Post said there was mean mindedness on the right and showboating on the left (Moynihan, 1973, p. 541). Moynihan said the middle kept quiet by threat of punishment by the left and the right who were against it, including from the “radical”.

The post-Nixon era saw socio-economic policies headed in the opposite direction away from the principles of basic income. Soon after the defeat of basic income in the Senate floor, Senate Finance Committee moved to cut welfare eligibility and allowed more invasive entry to welfare homes. Policy post-Nixon era headed towards austerity and the damaging workfare that was implemented to allow massive cuts to social assistance. A workfare or job guarantee often ends up doing more harm than good and limit people’s potential to thrive and get a better career to see them through retirement. People end up being denied of their time to retrain on jobs of their choosing. Instead, they are forced to take mandatory jobs that are often dead-end and low paying, or even in some cases unpaid work in exchange for inadequate social assistance. Economists keep warning about poverty trap and the flawed design of welfare. Policy makers from Nixon’s time already recognized a less convoluted fix to the flawed system. But their work was side-tracked by politicians who are fearful of change.

This solution has been staring us in the face. It was proposed by past visionary like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. but our bias and hang-up continue to stand in its path towards adoption. But we need this more now than ever as we chart a new course towards a new normal (from all indications should not be like the old normal) for post pandemic or any future crisis.

Recently, 50 Canadian Senators out of the 105 seats, Senate signed a petition for the federal government to convert CERB to basic income to “free up valuable time and resources” and to “stop other groups of Canadians from falling through the cracks.” One of the signees is Senator Marilou McPhedran of Manitoba. In an interview she gave on April 23, 2020, she cited the Mincome experiment at Dauphin as proof basic income is the right move. Various Canadian Senators have since spoken to the press advocating for a basic income system for mid- and post-COVID.

The Mincome experiment was conducted under the former Manitoba Premiere Ed Schreyer and former Prime Minister (PM) Pierre Elliott Trudeau in the 1970s, but the PM’s finance minister John Turner, was a vocal opponent of basic income. Turner successfully blocked the adoption of basic income during a cabinet meeting in 1975 and frustrated the progressive wings of the Liberal party. He would later resign the same year due to conflict with Trudeau on wage and price controls. Turner’s term as finance minister was beset by world’s economic crisis and stagflation (stagnating economy combined with rising inflation at the same time). Recently as COVID-19 economic crisis unfolds and under repeated questioning by the press about basic income, the former Finance Minister Bill Morneau said they quickly looked at it and decided against it.

The Mincome experiment did not formally end until 1979 under the newly elected Progressive Conservatives premier of Manitoba and the short-lived Federal Progressive Conservative government of Joe Clark. Joe Clark did not share the same enthusiasm for basic income as former Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield. Progressive Conservative will return to power under Mulroney on 1984 against the Liberals, who suffered the worst defeat of a sitting government in history at that time. Mulroney was later reported to be looking at guaranteed annual income. The 1984 McDonald Royal Commission during Mulroney’s term recommended (but never implemented) a form of more limited basic income, criticized by some as highly inadequate. But the commission recognized the increasing work displacement, especially with the adoption of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Mulroney Looking at Gtd Income

Tories Consider Gtd Income 1992

The Liberal in the opposition led by anti-basic income John Turner would criticize the Progressive Conservative for considering guaranteed income. There was no bill introduced nor was it ever publicly discussed by Mulroney. Later, the Liberal government under Prime Minister Jean Chrétien would be reported to be musing about basic income and this time it was the Conservative (PC and Reform/Canadian Alliance) turn to ridicule the idea, even though past Conservative party leaders have supported the idea. Opposition leader from Canadian Alliance Stockwell Day’s former Reform Party also supported the idea in 1993. When current PM Justin Trudeau was reported to have mentioned guaranteed income in December 2018, a Conservative columnist started attacking the idea, repeating common stereotypes such as “freeloading”. But Canada has its enduring ardent and long-time proponent of basic income in former Progressive Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, who was chief of staff in Mulroney’s cabinet. He was consulted for the recent Ontario basic income pilot before it was cancelled by supposed populist Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Doug Ford.

The COVID-19 crisis exposed the long overdue reforms that were needed. The solution proposed by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, the Kennedy/Johnson/Nixon's policy researchers, and by former Canada’s Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, working alongside Manitoba’s NDP Premiere Edward Schreyer, have gotten off-track and it seems to have been forgotten by policy makers until recently.

III. The Need for Change

Despite government’s best effort, the targeted temporary relief due to the pandemic still leave large numbers of people behind. Comparison is made between the speed and scope of a basic income compared to the current system. The current intrusive welfare system is thought of as inhumane, costly and ineffective. How does it compared to old workhouses featured in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist novel? Single mother turned activist Theresa Funiciello lambasted the U.S. welfare system as a mega business that benefits groups other than the poor. The imperative for change becoming more apparent as policy makers who fail to act are akin to a railroad signal operator sleeping on the switch amidst a pending disaster.

Efficiency Issues and Challenges

The federal government of Canada introduced COVID-19’s Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) relief fund and quickly decided that a $2,000 monthly payout is the survival amount needed for people who lost their income. After several iteration and delays, some gaps that saw people falling through the cracks remains. No matter how well intentioned the government decision makers are, they are unable to account for all types of scenarios and people who might need help. Changes to business relief added later on still missed startup businesses that are at pre-revenue or profit stage. Some who might have quit their jobs to pursue their business. Government officials did repeat WHO pronouncement that in times of crisis, speed is key. Questions about why not simply introduce a universal basic income were repeatedly asked by reporters. The problem with targeted relief and non-uniform rules is that some are left out and end up resenting what they felt is unfair treatment.

People in distress should be able to get immediate relief and basic income could provide an ongoing life-support in case the government relief is slow to arrive, such as with the case in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina or in Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria. Historically, the pandemic or epidemic could last several years or even centuries. Just within a few years we’ve seen a spike in numbers of novel viruses such as SARS, MERS, H1N1 and Zika. Smallpox lasted a long time and devastated the indigenous population in North America. The Black Plague also lingered for several years and caused tens of millions of deaths. We are also seeing increased rates of natural calamities. We can’t afford to wait for government’s aid for every crisis. For a lot of cases like CERB, it continues to leave out the most vulnerable.

It often takes great upheaval like the Great Depression for humans to be propelled into action. But inaction could create voids that are quickly filled by nefarious forces.

This mind map lays out the differences between a crisis/ongoing universal basic income and a targeted relief system.

Mind map comparing targeted relief to UBI

Mind Map Comparing Universal Basic Income and Incremental Relief (Click image or link for full size image)

The upper right hand shows the recipients of basic income and the list includes various scenarios and groups that CERB originally missed and kept missing to this day. Government had to keep going back to the drawing board after each public outcry and opposition motion. This means a lot of the recipients on the list must wait for each loop of the process listed at the bottom part of the mind map. Each loop could take weeks to plan and weeks to implement, so it could be a month before those affected see any relief. More than a month into the crisis, there are still lots of those who are still not covered, like a student who graduated last semester but just have had their graduation ceremony in January. But this time, they and those who were already out of work and not eligible for EI before the COVID-19 crisis hit, might not get the same volume of outcry for government to respond.

The government of Canada announced help for the disabled people nearly 3 months since the shutdown occurred, leading to criticism that it took them too long. Some point out it will still take weeks for the disabled to receive them while a lot of them are still not qualified. The $600 is only for those on disability tax credit (DTC) and a lot of disabled people are not on DTC . Disabled people often have underlying health complications. But the support they get are not enough to live even before taking into account the cost of medicine and personal health care cost for chronic conditions. The pandemic only worsens their already perilous condition described by one as “pure hell”, while some explored assisted dying to end their suffering as disabled people continued to be left out from COVID relief.

Intrusive, Ineffective and a Costly System

Our intrusive and surveillance-heavy welfare system is comparable to the poor houses in old United Kingdom that provoked Charles Dickens to write Oliver Twist (putting the inhumane conditions of poor workhouse on spotlight). Just like before, the current welfare system gave up on the poor and treated them as second class people. The poor are treated with suspicion, with a system that keeps them deprived rather than lift them out of destitution. Complex gatekeeper systems tend to be expensive and are often too little too late in providing any meaningful relief.

Theresa Funiciello, a single mother whose experiences in the welfare system propelled her to become a passionate advocate for welfare reform and for guaranteed income — to “open the door to social opportunity and income security”. She described the frontline of the broken welfare system as consisting of single mothers in constant crisis.

Theresa Funiciello has numerous stories from her work at the Downtown Welfare Advocate Centre (DWAC), a centre founded by welfare mothers. She said, “poverty is the number one killer of children” and there were lots of kids dying, due to overused stoves from unheated homes catching fire and higher instances of deadly diseases in impoverished children.

Theresa also decried the waste in the welfare system in a 1994 interview: “Except to poor people themselves, poverty is mega business”. And in a speech the same year laments the miscategorization of “work” as being paid work while “There’s a group of Americans who are fully employed. They aren’t very well paid or they’re not paid at all. They’re called mothers; and I’ve never heard of a mother who wasn’t a working mother. And that includes the mothers on welfare”.

A well-designed and thoughtfully created basic income will cut through all the red tapes, inefficiency and highly expensive system and it will be much more effective without discriminating based on flawed human subjectiveness. There is enough evidence to show it is not as apocalyptic as proclaimed by those who prefer austerity and dog-eats-dog, every-man-for-himself type of system.

Various interviews were conducted for our documentary project — “The Human Condition: Survival”. One of the many people interviewed was David Calnitsky who was going through the physical survey records of Mincome experiment that were left unanalyzed. At the time of our interview, Mr. Calnitsky had just received his PhD but is continuing his work on analyzing the Mincome results. But there were few notable things from qualitative analysis of the participant’s survey response. The responses show some qualities that suggest basic income would be beneficial for dealing with modern challenges and for minimizing the negative impacts from the COVID-19 crisis. It gives us a glimpse of what a mature and modern economy could look like.

Our modern economic system has been exposed by COVID-19 as being highly inadequate and full of flaws despite centuries of development and progress. A century or a thousand of years timeline seems fleeting when compared to other species before us that roamed the Earth for hundreds of millions of years. We went from facing the threat of extreme socialism (i.e. perverted form of socialism where everyone is equally poor, and authoritarian centralized figure micromanage people’s freedom — stifling independent thoughts and creativity) to living with extreme capitalism (i.e. pro-monopoly and rent-seeking oligarchic system that crushes free and fair enterprise, that is egregiously profit driven to the detriment of the well-being of working classes, which has also subverted the word “free market” to protect oligarchic monopoly instead of allowing subsidy to help common people such as farmers).

Perhaps it is time we come full circle to the base human spirit of our hunter-gatherer ancestors of looking after each other but in the context of a large modern and vibrant society with advanced technology. It needs not be a zero-sum game. With basic income we get the characteristic of humanity of an uncorrupted socialism and the ideals of free-enterprise where everyone receives a capital investment from shared wealth in society to establish a foundation through basic income. A capital as a means to pursue their dreams and have free thoughts and ability to create and innovate freely. Not to be held back based on what a central authority dictates an individual should be. Not prevented from trying for fear of failing and becoming indigent. Contributions to society in the form of new ventures, creative works, innovation and service to society are measures of success than just purely wealth-based. A lot of people with higher income either inherited their wealth or earn off other people’s work or from society’s shared resources.

There is a current wave of mostly peaceful protest and outpouring of support against racial injustice that is being called by the press as a “period of reckoning”. Yet this is a path that’s been travelled before during Selma as Blacks, Whites and people of other ethnic background joined in protest against brutal police crackdown of a peaceful protest. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized that the path to uplifting people is through guaranteed income, an effective emancipation tool. Basic income will not change white supremacist attitude but will reduce the effect of divisive politics and their ability to turn people against each other. The link might not be immediately obvious for some people but Mincome experiment have shown hints of how that could be achieved.

The politician and public servant’s job is to find creative and noble ways to solve the current societal problem. People can be convinced by a visionary leader to pursue a transformative policy. Plans that rely on deficit with no clear end in sight will feel like a blank cheque of uncontrolled spending. People will balk at a costly endeavor without a well thought out and transparent plan.

Times are changing and evidence on the feasibility of basic income is widely available for those who care to look. The current crisis exposed the flaw in our current system and the much needed improvement to deal with post crisis challenges any future crisis. Stubbornly sticking with current system and just doing minor tweaks than adopting basic income, despite the evidence that the latter could lead to self-sufficiency and resiliency, is akin to sleeping on the switch when a train is about to hit a brick wall.


Policy Makers Sleeping at the Switch

There are various ways to fund various forms of basic income and this have been well studied and debated over the years. If basic income were to come out of the COVID-19 crisis, then it could be this generation’s defining moment, much more profound than what Universal Health Care was for the generation of the much-revered Canadian Tommy Douglas. Canada and the world sorely need a leader like Tommy Douglas, President Franklin D. Roosevelt or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr right now. Someone who has the vision to see through an often-misunderstood novel idea, and the courage to stand up against powerful and wealthy disinformation campaign.

IV. The Social Effects of Income Security

Government have a propensity to stick with status quo. This can be seen during the pandemic relief plan. When called to help battered women, seen to be increasing during the pandemic, Canadian government offers increased funding to shelters as a solution while ignoring calls for basic income. Basic income could have provided relief that would have covered wide groups of people, without the usual discrimination and judgment of the welfare system between “deserving” and “no fault of their own” against those falsely assumed to be “non-deserving” and “fault of their own”. The link between the often misunderstood vicious cycle of poverty and trauma cannot be minimized. Both should be tackled at the same time. The misconception about low-income earners having lower IQ can also be traced to the interlinked problem of poverty and trauma. While basic income is not a fix-all, the behavior seen from Mincome experiment participants, such as increased social cohesion, could lead to more positive civic engagement and increased confidence and well-being. Basic income is not restricted to developed nations only but even developing nations would be able to afford a basic income and could improve world economy and keep global social ills such as terrorism in check.

Alarms are being raised on increased cases of domestic abuses worldwide during COVID-19 lockdown. In response Canada had announced increased funding for shelters to help battered spouses. The battered spouses and youths who normally runaway to homeless shelters have dropped in numbers, causing chills up the spine of social workers who normally provide assistance to those affected. Offering token funding to shelter as a means to tackle the increasing domestic abuse problem is like surrendering the victim’s fate to be at the shelters, which will most likely deter them from escaping to for risk of becoming homeless and impoverished especially if they have kids.

Spending time volunteering at homeless shelter (and witnessing real-life struggle of those who were there due to no fault of their own) could increase awareness and make people more determined to fight for basic income. The vulnerable are often taken advantage of. In Winnipeg, there was instances of serial killers targeting helpless homeless people. We can make homeless shelter obsolete in our lifetime if there is political will. Then we won’t see any more needless victims like the gentle and kind disabled regular user of food banks who was seen to have bruises from being beaten on the street.

Shelters do some wonderful work and some also provide transitional housing or programs to integrate people to a normal neighborhood. The difference can be seen on the face of the kids. Kids who transitioned to a regular neighborhood away from high crime and stressful neighborhood exhibit changes in behaviors. From a tense stressed look of a kid maturing too soon, to a more relaxed playful kid like what a normal kid should look like. We might look back at our social assistance system in the future as primitive and cruel for treating those who have fallen on hard times like criminals.

The Winnipeg Harvest food bank have seen an increased demand during the COVID-19 crisis where 81% are said to be new users. At the Three Square emergency food distribution center in the U.S., cars start lining up for miles before sunrise. The call for donation to food banks or for reliefs that are sometimes met with angry responses on social media from people saying they can’t afford to give and are in trouble themselves. But people who can are donating.

A better solution would be to give cash directly to the people through basic income without prejudice. This should be obvious by now for anyone whose job is researching policies and solutions as part of the task they were elected to do. It is absurd with all the evidence in our hands to settle for token funding to shelters for homeless or battered spouses when we could stop them from falling into homelessness in the first place.

Winnipeg Harvest is a vocal supporter of basic income. They believe basic income will eliminate the need for food banks and they will be glad when that day happens, even if it means the need for them to exist will cease. Basic income also helps a single mother whether they are running away from an abusive relationship with their children or just unfortunate turn of events have made them a widow. Government should be working to eradicate the need for food bank and children of poor family’s reliance on school’s breakfast club for food. This can easily be done with basic income.

Alana Baltzer, an Ontario’s basic income pilot participant described, during a North American Basic Income Congress, the joy of having cupboards full of foods. Something people with steady jobs don’t even think about. She described life before basic income as constantly being triggered mentally due to fear of not having enough to live. With basic income and having her basic survival needs met she planned to go back to school. But the cancellation of the pilot put all those plans on hold.

Unlike welfare system, basic income is a distribution of a shared equity from society and does not have stigma of being a mark of failure that people often associate with welfare recipients.

Perilous Environment

Those who grew-up in poor neighborhoods are generally more prone to crime whether falling victim or becoming involved in one, such as being recruited to gangs or exploited to sex works and other survival jobs that are at the margins of society. Incarceration cost for each inmate per year is more expensive than a post-secondary education without counting the criminal justice and legal cost. A 40% drop in crime was seen in area of Namibia with basic income and property crime decreased in Dauphin, Manitoba during the Mincome experiment.

As more people are displaced by COVID-19, increased rates of break-ins were reported. People were already on the edge with reports of guns being pulled at grocery stores. People who are on the edge of breakdown will likely be the first one to go. And sometimes they take out large numbers of people with them through mass suicide or domestic abuses and mass murder. Even before COVID-19, as we walk down the poor neighborhoods, where politicians normally avoid visiting during election campaign periods, we can hear people talk about there being lots of “broken people” in their area.

Poverty and trauma are a closed interlinked loop that only feeds a vicious cycle. They are the main precursor of social ills. One could lead to the other. Homeless shelter organizations are well aware that the first thing that goes when you fall into poverty, or simply faced with pending economic insecurity, is your mental health. Meanwhile, those who suffers from trauma, whether due to abuses or other causes, could cause them to become less productive members of society and put them at higher risk of falling into poverty. Substance abuse and harmful addictions usually results from mental health issues whether it is caused by income insecurity or other traumatic causes. As COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, the already bad trend of drug abuses and gang problems just escalated .

Vicious Cycle of Poverty and Trauma

Mistreatment

A militarized police more focused on use-of-force has been proven to be a poor fit for dealing with the increasing societal mental health crisis, with warning signs going as far back as 1997. That year in Toronto, a schizophrenia victim named Edmond Yu was shot dead by police in the Toronto’s public transit. This propels a movement to raise awareness about the worsening effect of homelessness on mental health issue, and inadequacy of policing in dealing with mental health crisis. A look back at Edmond Yu’s life revealed his favorite song was the Beatle’s “Yesterday”, offering a window to his struggle with regrets and longing for better times where he was on a path towards his study in medicine . Sammy Yatim would become another victim in 2013, and once again the findings would recommend de-escalation as a needed part of response to a mental health crisis. And this year Toronto saw another case in the middle of the pandemic as family of Regis Korchinski-Paquet questioned police’s aggressive action that lead to her fall to death from her apartment’s balcony.

Edmond Yu

People with their stereotypes would sometimes point to indigenous populations who have a large portion of population in poverty. As with other poorer neighborhoods, addictions are rampant. But there is sometimes a general dismissiveness and blaming that it is “fault of their own” or the growing missing indigenous women that they are at risk due to “their choices”. Any mention of abuses in residential schools, 1960s scoop, and continued family breakup with the current foster child system, are downplayed and indigenous people who are struggling are told to get over it (and any past transgressions). The truth is for a lot of indigenous families, the trauma from residential school abuses and deaths are still fresh in their minds. Trauma and ensuing alcoholism tends to pass down generations. Imagine one person as a victim of abuse and being traumatized and the consequences of that. But multiply that to a whole generation of indigenous people who are now the parents or grandparents of the indigenous youth nowadays. A lot of their youth are still being separated from their family through child welfare and foster care homes. In Canada, 52 percent of children in foster care homes are indigenous children. So the same separation from their culture and family is still ongoing at this time. Rather than tackle the generational trauma they are envied about their isolated reserve land or tax free status like it is enriching them when the opposite is true. They would rather be integrated to the same health care and system enjoyed by other Canadians. The reserve land or tax free status as reparation aside, there is no reason to exclude them from other basic health care and human rights enjoyed by other Canadians.

Young indigenous women are often victimized into child prostitution and crime, the perpetrator emboldened, knowing that when the victims are indigenous, people tend to overlook and shrug their shoulder as if it is a “fault of their own”. The stacked multi-generational trauma is just their problem to sort out and to “get over it” and they are undeserving of any support. Some enviously criticize their tax-free status as a windfall despite reality of the Indian act relegating them to isolated reserves that are not conducive to supporting economic growth or personal survival.

Recovery from invisible mental injury takes time. But in the absence of a secure home or hostile environment (such as continued abused or bullying due to social awkwardness resulting from past abuses), then the injuries just pile up until a breaking point is reached, tantamount to a fatal physical injury. While our society advances, science and health workers are learning more about effective means to deal with invisible brain injuries or handicap. For instance, an autistic kid under the old school attitude of “spare the rod, spoil a child”. It is an old way of thinking that violence makes a person stronger. Scientific studies now show that would have done irreparable damage to kids instead of helping them. An autistic kid acting up and being seen as evil to be cast to hell might sound like dark age era punishment, but to this day those with mental illness or autism or Asperger syndrome are tasered or shot at. But research now shows gentle treatment and reminders that helps regulate kids in those spectrum. Parents can get their kids to special class that help them without use of violence. Kids are shown to calm down and learn to regulate themselves.

Blaming the Victim

As relief funds for COVD-19 were announced, some politicians claim they support the relief because it is for the people who have fallen on hard times due to “no faults of their own”, while leaving out those who have long been struggling. Assumptions are often made that the destitute troubles are “faults of their own”, making it easier to dismiss any feelings of empathy towards them.

A large part of the reason for addiction and social ills are caused by income insecurity and poverty. Contrary to stereotypes that people became poor because they are lazy and engage in addictions when the reverse is true (people become addicts due to mental problems resulting from being impoverished or past abuses). Or the root cause could be due to other causal factor or trauma.

An asterisk should be added to the poverty trauma link, as precursor of social ill, is ingrained inequality and biases in the system, which causes females or people of colors being treated less in salary or standing in society. This in turn creates a trap that adds a layer of obstacle for the affected group to advance.

Another common prejudice is generalizing poor as people with low IQ. A lot of poor people go on to excel after overcoming obstacles that people with secure income do not normally have to go through. Someone facing the prospect of losing their income security, or someone who is suffering from trauma , could see their IQ negatively affected. Those who are abused or who had suffered other forms of trauma usually develop a cocktail of disorders from mild panic disorder or anxieties to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), total breakdown or psychotic disorder. People trapped in such mental states are also more likely to be constantly in a fight or flight overdrive leading to mistrust and leads to long-term chronic physiological illness or disease. Some might just become irritated while others could become abusive or violent as their mental state comes loose. But those who overcome and are able to recover after a while and stay away from a tumultuous environment have seen their IQ recover, as was the case with Alberta’s eugenics sterilization victim and an abused sufferer Leilani Muir.

Leilani Muir speaking at Alberta Eugenics Awareness Week

As an aside but noteworthy nonetheless: the link above to a study on childhood trauma and IQ defect have found that for people with psychotic disorder, that is not caused by trauma, their IQ or cognitive ability were less affected. Other study also found that IQ is not a predetermining factor for prejudice. Both “intelligent” and non-intelligent people could both be prejudiced. They are more likely to engage in social Darwinism that predates Darwin’s actual scientific theory. Unlike Darwin’s theory, social Darwinism is based on prejudice than science. Social Darwinists use scientific theory of genetic survival of the fittest as an excuse for apathy and outright oppressive actions against specific groups.

Similar to people from abusive environment, bullied kids are more likely to underperform. But removed from the hostile environment they could recover and excel. The government welfare system and its past and present system of treating kids from indigenous homes essentially took on the role of the bully by constantly harassing people who are dealing with trauma, compounding the problem than helping them recover.

We tend to minimize any case of abuses that are brought to light. A lot of times the victims are instead blamed and discredited. Our brains as described by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky are risk averse. We have a hard time accepting an uncomfortable truth and will tend towards minimizing and rationalizing it out. This leads to victim blaming that even some victims of domestic abuse themselves resort to.

Removing or mitigating the root cause of trauma, whether it is income insecurity or mental distress (such as lost loved ones, calamities, bullying and abuses), could lead to positive improvement in their IQ.

Healing Effects of Basic Income

Basic income will help heal the wound in our social fabric. It will ease recovery and rehabilitation from trauma, no matter what the origin, source or the form it is in. Those recovering from trauma due to systemic injustices or from personal tragedy have a steep hill to climb even before the added burden of facing the threat of income insecurity. Healing takes time and basic income gives them time and income support to recover.

Basic income also allows victims of abuse to remove themselves from the abusive environment without fear of losing their means of survival, or a roof over their heads and ending up on the streets. With Universal Basic Income (UBI), a fund for basic survival is available to them anytime. But if the basic income system is non-universal such as NIT, then the system needs to be able to respond quickly, without intrusive interrogators that could make those who are thinking of running away think twice. The system must be easily accessible and responsive. The rule must be clear and make people trust it and be comfortable that they will not get turned down or be stigmatized as they seek urgent help.

Conspiracy theory often spikes when people are anxious. Disinformation, whether from foreign instigators or local pranksters, spreads farther and wider when people are anxious, whether it is due to pandemic or economic insecurity. People become paranoid and mistrustful of government or large organizations. This in turn leads to the rise of false savior populist leaders. When society is anxious, voice of reason and rational thoughts are drowned out by voices of fear and hate. Science and fact give way to paranoid xenophobic fascism and protectionism.

The Mincome experiment analyzed by Manitoba economist Evelyn Forget indicates there were fewer hospital visits and mental health issues, along with reduced domestic abuses, accidents or injuries. Although the experiment was short-lived, it reduced hospitalization rate by 8.5% while the experiment was running.

One example of the effect of losing, or simply threat of losing, one’s income on a person’s mental state are those protesting to force reopening in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic. When interviewed by reporters, they expressed feeling threatened by the possibility of losing their jobs or incomes from their business. People in survival mode are less likely to think of bigger picture and greater good. But with basic income, people can have what Roosevelt refers to as freedom from want or fear, and start to thrive and have a sense of belonging to the community or society.

Basic Income & Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Whether still in the midst or after the pandemic, there will likely be a huge hangover economically and socially — including psychologically, leads to mental health issues and despair. If we don’t pre-empt it with basic income, the cost of trying to recover or treat the outbreak of socio-economic turmoil will be much costlier and exact longer term cost — in some cases permanent damage to individuals and businesses. Whether it is the current pandemic, or future crisis and the cleanup and recovery post-crisis, basic income would go a long way to calm our collective nerves.

People are often cynical about the intention of others aside from their own. Believing that given a regular basic income, people will stop working. This have been repeatedly debunked by various studies, but the myth persists. The Mincome experiment’s survey responders shows there were increased social cohesion as a result of people receiving a basic income. Volunteer works and community involvement increased.

By reforming long-term care or at-home care for elderly or the disabled, and making it an essential social and health service, some people could be recruited to volunteer as a public service just as volunteers currently do in hospitals. They could supplement the currently overworked PSW workers. Some might find it hard to believe that people would do this willingly. But there are lots of social workers who chose their profession not out of desire to get rich, but a desire to selflessly help others. We also hear about youth volunteering to care for at-home or long-term care home’s senior citizens. People might not put in as much volunteer hours as they would like if they have to work multiple jobs or they are working long hours with barely any spare time.

Socio-economic uncertainty often leads to increased acrimony whether on the domestic level or at national level. This could lead to breakups and separatist sentiments. Malicious forces (externally and/or internally) could tap into the discontent to create division and demand for secession. A basic income, on the other hand, is less intrusive with less overbearing centralized control. The basic income stabilizing and calming effect against socio-economic fear and uncertainty could foster a more co-operative mindset that we are truly “in this together”.

Basic income will empower people to better themselves says Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the positive effect that “will naturally come out of having guaranteed income”. He proposed guaranteed income at a time when America was seething with social unrest and growing protest against social injustices (including economic inequality stemming from systemic discrimination). Dr. King, in his speech and his last book before he was assassinated, made it part of his Poor People’s campaign.

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