Basic income panned by expert panel

By Shannon Waters January 29, 2021

Basic income is not the most “just policy option” to address poverty in B.C., and launching a pilot project to explore the option would “not be useful.”

That’s according to the expert panel on basic income, struck by the NDP government in 2018, which released its 500-plus page report yesterday.

“The needs of people in this society are too diverse to be effectively answered simply with a cheque from government,” the panel concluded.

B.C.’s current assistance system “provides a solid basis for reform,” per the panel, which makes 65 recommendations to improve the efficacy and benefits of existing social programs.

After reviewing more than a dozen studies on basic income, the panel determined that organizing, launching, administering and then reviewing a B.C. pilot program would be a waste of time and resources.

And — as panelist Dr. Lindsay Tedds told BC Today last spring — basic income is far from simple to implement.

“It’s not a simple enterprise — it’s a very complex enterprise,” said Dr. David Green, chair of the panel and professor at the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver School of Economics. “For example, about 14 per cent of Canadians do not file taxes in a year — four per cent are not even known to the tax system,” making it difficult to deliver assistance based on tax filings.

Basic income is also more costly than current programs.

“If you adopted the most straightforward version of basic income — where you literally send everybody at the poverty line in B.C. a cheque for $20,000 … that would cost $52 billion,” said Dr. Green. “So a rough doubling of the B.C. provincial budget.”

The “coordinated and quite substantial reform” recommended by the panel would cost an estimated $3.3 billion to $5 billion dollars and involve shaking up health and housing programs, labour market regulation (to address precarious work), and how assistance is delivered.

To help offset “a substantial portion” of the cost of reforming B.C.’s assistance programs, the panel suggests axing the annual homeowners’ grant, which costs the province approximately $800 million per year.

Top targets: youth aging out of care, disability assistance and dental care
Basic income — combined with other supports — could benefit one specific group: youth aging out of government care.

“This is a group of great concern,” Dr. Green said, adding that the province could “immediately work on starting to roll with basic income for those youth.”

Reforming disability assistance is another high priority for the panel, which advocated for making last year’s $300 social assistance top-up permanent.

Dental benefits “patterned on Fair Pharmacare” are another policy change that could make a big difference for many British Columbians.

“[Dental benefits] are available to people on income assistance but for the working poor and other people not on income assistance, they don’t exist,” Dr. Green said.

On the housing front, the panel recommended a rental assistance program similar to Manitoba’s, where people receive assistance based on their income and the median rental price in their area.

“We’re recommending that the benefit be the difference between 30 per cent of a household’s income and 75 per cent of median rent,” Dr. Green said, adding that eligible recipients should be able to keep any of the benefit they do not end up spending on rent costs.

The panel said it hopes to see some of these items realized in Budget 2021.

Social Development and Poverty Reduction Minister Nicholas Simons said Covid has “shown us how important a strong social safety net is” and pledged to review the recommendations closely as part of its economic recovery efforts.

Exploring basic income was part of NDP’s Confidence and Supply Agreement with former Green leader Andrew Weaver.