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Social Development

Fixing a Gap in Adult Education

A number of constituents have contacted me regarding the high cost of upgrading high school courses. I wrote to the Minister of Education to ask that he consider removing the barriers to educational access that his government put in place in May 2015. I received a disappointing response which failed to address the key concerns of the letter.

I subsequently wrote to the Minister of Advanced Education urging him to close a gap in coverage that the policy change had created. When government chose to end funding for high school graduates upgrading  secondary courses, they forced secondary schools to charge tuition to high school graduates. This included public schools, like SIDES or The Link, which offer online classes and are well suited for academic upgrading.

Along with the policy change government introduced the Adult Upgrading Grant, which is administered by the Ministry of Advanced Education and is meant to provide some support for low-income students. However, this grant only covers courses taken at post-secondary institutions and does not include any of the secondary schools which now have to charge tuition to high school graduates. I asked the minister to extend the grant to a more diverse group of schools, in particular to secondary schools which focus on distributed learning and currently have high rates of enrollment for students upgrading courses.

A non trivial component of the government’s surplus has come at the expense of those who can least afford it. Cuts to those seeking to upgrade their high school education to pursue work and educational opportunities do nothing more than perpetuate the poverty trap. British Colombians deserve a government which will make education more accessible for all British Colombians.

Below I reproduce the text of my letter and I will share the response when it is forthcoming.


Text of the Letter


February 12, 2017

Honourable Andrew Wilkinson
Minister of Advanced Education
PO Box 9080 Stn Prov Govt
Victoria BC
V8W 9E2
Canada

Dear Minister Wilkinson,

I’m writing to you in light of concerns that constituents have brought to my attention regarding the high cost of upgrading high school courses.

As you know, in 2015, the provincial government ended funding for students upgrading high school courses, if they have already graduated. Since that policy change, returning students now face a fee, generally $500-$550 per course, to take grade 11/12 course. These fees place an undue burden on individuals, and their families, as they work to expand their professional and academic opportunities.

I have learned that at the South Island Distance Education School (SIDES) in Victoria alone, there are hundreds of students who are unable to afford the fees of upgrading their courses, and thus remain on the waitlist. This does not include the many who don’t even apply to join the waitlist, discouraged from doing so when they learn the cost.

I have written the Minister of Education about my concerns with this policy and am now writing you to outline a specific gap that it has created.

The Ministry of Education still funds high school courses for students who have not graduated. The Ministry of Advanced Education provides support for low-income students who have graduated and are taking high school level courses at one of nineteen post-secondary institutions.

There is, however, no support for students who have graduated high school and are pursuing academic upgrading through institutions other than post-secondary schools. For example, high school graduates attending public schools in Victoria, like SIDES or the Link, are not eligible for tax deductions, reimbursement under RESPs, or the Adult Upgrading Grant.

These two schools specialize in providing a flexible academic environment to accommodate the needs of students. With many returning students are juggling career and family obligations, this an ideal environment for them to return. Attending a school focused on secondary education can also be less jarring return to the education system for many students.

I find it difficult to understand why two students of similar income levels could take equivalent courses that have comparable prices and that only one would receive government support.

As your ministry oversees the Adult Upgrading Grants, I ask that you increase the number of institutions which are approved to administer them. Specifically, I ask that you give public schools that have a focus on distributed learning the ability to authorize these grants.

If you feel that this falls outside the purview of your ministry, then I urge you to coordinate with the Minister of Education and develop a funding program which would achieve the same results.

I fully believe that we should all fund students who pursue academic upgrading, whether or not they’ve graduated. British Columbians have been promised a high school education, and there is more to that than just a diploma. Whether or not someone has graduated, they should be supported as they flesh out their secondary education, seeking to open their mind or opportunities.

At the very least, this government should, fill the gap that has been created by its policy change and provide the Adult Upgrading Grant to a more diverse group of institutions, including specialized secondary schools.

Sincerely,

Andrew Weaver
MLA, Oak Bay-Gordon Head

It’s time to eliminate the high cost of upgrading high school courses

A number of constituents recently contacted me regarding the high cost of upgrading high school courses. To start the new year, and in anticipation of the upcoming provincial budget to be tabled in February, I wrote to the Minister of Education to ask that he consider removing the barriers to educational access that his government put in place in May 2015.

A non trivial component of the government’s surplus has come at the expense of those who can least afford it. Cuts to those seeking to upgrade their high school education to pursue work and educational opportunities do nothing more than perpetuate the poverty trap.

I reproduce the text of my letter below.


Text of the Letter


January 4, 2017

Honourable Mike Bernier
Ministry of Education
PO Box 9045, Stn Prov Govt
Victoria BC
V8W 9E2
Canada
Dear Minister Bernier,

I’m writing to you today in light of concerns that constituents have brought to my attention regarding the high cost of upgrading high school courses.

Since the subsidy was removed in May 2015, adults now face a fee to upgrade grade 11/12 courses, generally $500-$550 per course. This fee is placing a huge burden on families and individuals looking to upgrade their high school education and pursue work and educational opportunities.

I have learned that at the South Island Distance Education School (SIDES) in Victoria alone, there are hundreds of students who are unable to afford the fees of upgrading their courses, and thus remain on the waitlist; many more don’t even apply to join the waitlist, discouraged from doing so when they learn the cost.

In particular, these fees harm those who are seeking to upgrade their courses at secondary schools, since only courses taken at postsecondary institutions are eligible for tax deductions, reimbursement under RESPs, or the Adult Upgrading Grant.

This situation leaves a significant gap in our support for students, leaving those who upgrade their courses at secondary schools to pay course fees and to go without the financial assistance that benefits students at postsecondary institutions. It is not always an option to attend a post-secondary school: many low-income individuals need the flexibility of distance learning to enable them to balance their studies with their work.

I have heard from families who are struggling financially to help their children cover the costs of these courses. For others, the cost is too high a barrier to overcome, preventing motivated individuals from upgrading the courses they need to attend college or university, and therefore foreclosing the opportunities that would otherwise become available to them.

Currently, the BC Government is penalizing people who return to school, and preventing so many from upgrading their education and realizing the associated opportunities.

Please act to make adult education more accessible. This would be best achieved through reinstating the subsidies to these courses. In the absence of these subsidies, I ask you to extend the eligibility requirements for upgrading grants, to encompass students who upgrade their courses at secondary schools.

Sincerely,

Andrew Weaver
MLA, Oak Bay-Gordon Head

Basic Income Part IV: Recommendations & a Commitment to British Columbians

Introduction

Over the fall, we have explored the concept of basic income in a series of posts on my website, asking for your feedback on each post. The responses I have received, through comments on the website and my Facebook page, as well as in calls and emails to my office, have shown me that there is significant interest in the idea. The reaction has included high levels of support and enthusiasm, as well as a number of concerns and questions.

Your comments and our research have informed our proposal for moving forward with exploring how basic income could contribute to building a better future in BC. In this final post I will summarize what our series has explored so far, and why we should consider basic income as a tool to help us rectify some of the problems that we face today in BC, and those that we may face tomorrow.

The status quo in BC

After a general introduction to the concept of basic income, our second post in the series discussed what poverty looks like in BC, the social assistance programs available and how they can fail to help those most in need. It also explored how basic income could help to alleviate poverty in our province. We know that BC has higher rates of poverty and child poverty than the national average: poverty stands at 11-16% and child poverty is even higher, at 16-20%, depending on the measure used. We also know that poverty is not spread evenly across population groups and regions in BC. Amongst lone parent families, for example, 50% of children live in poverty; aboriginal people, immigrants, and people with disabilities are also more vulnerable. Some regions are disproportionately affected: on the Central Coast, for example, the child poverty rate is above 50%.

After looking at poverty and social assistance in BC, we focussed on the trends we are seeing in the world of work: the rise in precarious employment and the trend towards increasing automation of jobs. Our third post outlined the shift we are experiencing as a population away from long-term, full-time work with benefits, toward short-term, part-time, and contract-based work. Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau said recently that Canadians must get used to “job churn”, and this is a national trend that BC has not escaped: 75% of jobs created in the last year have been part-time. This situation has left many with significant financial insecurity,  juggling part-time jobs, struggling to make ends meet, and worrying about an uncertain future.

We also examined the increasing automation of jobs. Many studies predict that automation will eliminate a huge number of jobs across a range of sectors: one study, for example, predicts 47% of jobs are at high risk of computerization over the next 20 years. Jobs in manufacturing, transportation and warehousing, and office and administrative support are widely cited as the most susceptible (see here and here, for example). The impact on BC of job losses in these sectors would be very significant: the transportation and warehousing sector employs 140,000 people, while manufacturing employs 168,000, down 12,000 from a year ago. Already BC is one of the most unequal provinces in Canada, a problem that automation would exacerbate as it replaces mostly moderate-paying jobs and concentrates the benefits in the hands of a few beneficiaries.

Automation is an issue that those in the technology industry are taking very seriously: Amazon’s chairman, Jeff Bezos, has said “It’s probably hard to overstate how big of an impact it’s going to have on society over the next twenty years.” Yet despite widespread acknowledgement that automation poses a serious threat to our workforce and could have widespread social implications, it does not seem that our government is considering the seriousness of the issue. As politicians we have an obligation to take the threat of automation seriously and prepare for the possibility of a future in which the world of work as we know it is fundamentally altered. We cannot be left playing catch-up, merely reacting to the moves of industry and the development of technology, and rushing to create policies to mitigate the adverse consequences after they have already taken hold.

Recommendations

Already, the economy in BC is not working for many. Despite our wealth as a province, and the many resources on which we can draw, many people in our province face substantial financial insecurity. While we have seen economic growth and the Province projects a budget surplus of $2.24 billion, we have poverty levels that have remained unchanged for years, welfare rates that haven’t increased since 2007 and that leave recipients well below the poverty line, cities that are increasingly unaffordable, and unprecedented rates of food bank use. This is a reality that we have the opportunity, and the obligation, to change.

Moreover, simply raising the minimum wage is not an adequate answer, given the changing conditions in the world of work. A higher minimum wage alone fails to provide financial security to those affected by the rise in precarious employment, as you only benefit to the extent that you maintain stable employment with sufficient hours, something that is becoming unattainable for more and more people. Furthermore, it does not respond to the threat of automation. You need to have a job in order to benefit from a higher minimum wage, so it does not help people made redundant due to automation. Combined with the increasing ability of companies to automate, a higher minimum wage alone also runs the risk of accelerating the drive toward automation, by making humans relatively more expensive than their robotic counterparts.

Basic income could be an effective tool to tackle the persistent, intergenerational poverty we see in BC, and the shortcomings of our current social assistance programs. It could also help those who are suffering from the rise in precarious employment by providing some measure of financial security, and preventing those on the edge from slipping into poverty due to inadequate hours or job transitions. It could also provide a means to make up for the structural unemployment and inequality created by automation, and keep the economy going by providing people with purchasing power. Moreover, basic income has more visionary potential: it could provide people a stable base on which they can take entrepreneurial risks, pursue further education or retraining, or spend more time doing work that is essential to our society but is not financially rewarding, such as taking care of family members in need. It could therefore improve our wellbeing as individuals, and our resilience as a society.

To achieve these goals, a basic income would need to be high enough to raise individuals and families across the Province above the poverty line. To be affordable, it would likely need to be conditional on income (i.e. not a universal basic income to all individuals regardless of income, but rather a targeted payment to those who fall below a determined threshold). It would also need to take into account the differences in the cost of living across BC,  to ensure that people are not consigned to poverty in our cities.

Basic income holds exciting prospects for improving the lives of many in our Province and securing us against an uncertain future. However, it is important to recognize some of the uncertainties inherent in the idea and respond to the concerns raised by a number of people who have commented on previous posts.

The most common question is whether basic income would provide a disincentive for people to work. Would basic income encourage people to leave the workforce, or discourage them from joining in the first place? Or, on the other hand, would it provide a safety net, and a level of autonomy necessary to encourage entrepreneurship, retraining, and the pursuit of educational goals? What would be the overall balance in a community? Would there be an effect on young people specifically? The question of how basic income would affect people’s choices about working is difficult to answer in the abstract, and we have limited real-world experience from which to draw. The Dauphin, Manitoba pilot found that the negative effect on people’s willingness to work was negligible for the general population, but more pronounced for mothers with young children, as well as school aged teenagers from low income families, who completed high school instead of leaving to join the workforce.  The question of cost has been the second-most discussed issue. What would be the net cost of basic income? Would basic income create an inflationary effect? How would the social benefits translate into cost savings? Which social programs could be streamlined or eliminated, and which supports would need to be maintained, perhaps in an altered form?

Pilot Projects

The need to answer these questions, and others, leads me to conclude that pilot projects are a necessary step in considering implementing basic income in BC. A policy change of this magnitude has significant associated opportunities and risks, many of which cannot be quantified in the absence of real world results. Pilot projects would allow us to test how such a policy could be rolled out effectively, calculate the net costs, and measure the outcomes on families, individuals, and communities in BC.

A number of other jurisdictions are undertaking pilot projects. Finland and the Netherlands are both staging pilots in 2017, while the charity GiveDirectly is staging a pilot in Kenya. In Canada, Ontario is currently undertaking community consultations to inform their roll out of pilot projects in 2017: they are designing their pilots to determine whether basic income would be more effective than their current social programs in lifting people out of poverty and improving health, housing and employment outcomes. Quebec has also shown considerable interest in basic income. And earlier this month, MLAs in PEI voted unanimously to approve a motion calling for developing a basic income pilot project in partnership with the Federal Government. There is no reason why BC should be left behind in the move to test this idea.

To be effective in tracking the effects of basic income on some of the most pressing problems facing BC, including poverty, inequality, and economic change, the places selected for pilots should be particularly affected by these issues. Places such as Port Alberni and Prince Rupert provide examples of potentially appropriate sites for a pilot. One pilot site should be a relatively small town, to enable saturation in order to measure the effects on the community as a whole, as well as on individuals and families within that community. The project would likely need to be at least five years long, in order to enable us to measure the poverty, health, education and employment outcomes, and to calculate the net cost of such a program, taking into account the social benefits that accrue over time. We would seek the partnership of the Federal Government in testing basic income, as PEI has decided to do. We would also need to create residency requirements to avoid a large influx of people into the pilot site.

Beyond these fundamentals, a committee that is independent of the governing party should be established to undertake further analysis of basic income, to hold community and stakeholder consultations, and to advise on the details of how pilot projects should be designed and implemented. There are a number of specific issues that need to be investigated, such as: parameters for tax rates on earned income above the basic income threshold; interactions with other social programs and supports; how to mitigate risks to vulnerable groups; and how to incentivize the pursuit of education as well as paid and unpaid contributions to society.

Conclusion

We must address the unacceptable levels of poverty and inequality in our province, mitigate the adverse consequences of the rise in precarious work, and prepare for a future that may bring fundamental economic change through technological advance. To address these challenges we must create forward-thinking policies, informed by a commitment to a more equitable future and strong evidence on how to get there.

Basic income could be one such policy. It could help us alleviate poverty, foster healthier families and communities, encourage entrepreneurs and volunteers, enable education and retraining, and allow British Columbians dignity and autonomy while they navigate a changing world of work. With the right tools and foresight, and guided by evidence all the way, we can support a 21st century economy that is resilient, and craft a future that works better for everyone.

As premier in a BC Green government, I commit to introducing pilot projects that explore the costs and benefits of basic income.

I continue to welcome your comments, particularly if you haven’t yet had a chance to share your thoughts on basic income and the role it could play in BC.

Basic Income Part III: The Future of Work

1. Introduction

This post is the third in our series exploring the concept of a basic income and its implications in BC. Our backgrounder provided an overview of the concept, the issues we are facing today in BC, and the potential implications of a basic income policy. Our second post investigated in more detail the current state of poverty, welfare rates and social assistance in BC. We are grateful for the high level of engagement that our series continues to receive on social media and this website, including the large number of thoughtful comments. Below we continue to engage with the common themes in the responses we’ve received. This dialogue is very important in exploring ideas and creating good policies.

Many of you have noted the current scarcity of jobs and the precarious nature of much work today. A second theme has been disagreement about the role of basic income in either disincentivizing people to join the workforce, or providing people the freedom and self-sufficiency required to achieve personal and professional goals. Finally, many of you spoke with optimism about the potential of basic income to exert a beneficial and potentially transformational effect on society as a whole. In responding to your comments and sketching what we believe are some of the key issues, here we explore the social impacts of precarious employment, the trend towards increasing automation of jobs, and the role that basic income could play in the changing world of work.

2. Precarious Work

The world of work is changing, most dramatically due to technological advance, especially automation, but also due to a trend away from long-term, secure, full-time work with benefits, toward short-term, part-time, and contract-based work.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau stated recently that Canadians need to get used to “job churn”, defined as making a number of career changes in one’s life through short-term contract-based employment. Since the 2008-09 recession, the majority of jobs created have been part-time or temporary. The October 2016 Canadian Labour Force Survey highlights this trend: 44,000 net jobs were created across Canada in the month of October, but this number reflects a gain of 67,000 new part-time positions and a loss of 23,000 full-time positions. Men aged 25-54 have been hit particularly hard: full-time employment for this demographic declined by 63,000 positions over the past year, while part-time employment increased by 36,000 positions. The trend is the same in BC: 55,000 new jobs have been created since October 2015, but the majority (41,000) of these have been part-time positions.

Contract-based employment, which is often short-term, with fewer hours and without benefits, is also on the rise. Many speak of the rise of the “precariat” – a workforce that moves from job to job, taking temporary positions with no benefits and little job security. While some individuals prefer the flexibility of part-time or contract-based work, for most, it is not a choice: many are forced to take the jobs available, and suffer from insecurity and low incomes due to lower wages and fewer hours.

Some sectors are hit much harder than others by these trends: the natural resource industries, manufacturing, and education sectors, for example, have seen some of the largest increases in temporary and contract-based work in recent years. There are indications this trend will continue, with the majority of new jobs being part-time, temporary, or contract-based. This would mean significant implications for the financial security and well-being of huge numbers of people across British Columbia and beyond.

3. Automation

Recent years have also seen unprecedented technological advance in speed and scale, and there has been much talk recently about the impending robot revolution – when robots could increasingly replace humans in a variety of jobs, and the rate of automation outstrips the rate of job creationWe are already seeing the impact of technology on work: automated voice recognition software is already replacing many call centre workers, car assembly plants use more robots than people, and driverless cars and trucks are already significantly impacting the taxi and trucking industries.

Looking forward, a number of forecasts suggest the potential for the rapid elimination of jobs across a range of sectors: a study at the University of Oxford, for example, found that 47% of jobs in the U.S. are at “high risk” of computerization over the next two decades. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report predicts that we are entering a fourth industrial revolution that will result in the net loss of 5 million jobs across 12 leading economies over just the next 5 years. Barack Obama’s 2016 economic report predicts that jobs paying less than $20/hour face an 83% likelihood of being automated, while jobs paying between $20 and $40/hour face a 33% chance.

Some argue that predictions about the effects of automation overstate the risk: that machine-caused unemployment has been predicted before and always been misguided; that automation lowers costs and creates new jobs; and that any transition would be gradual. Yet the rate of technological advance so far has exceeded most estimates. Furthermore, many of those speaking out most loudly about the disruptive potential of technology, and the need for a basic income policy to deal with the transition, come from within the tech industry itself, and thus have the most intimate knowledge of the technology and its future potential. Y Combinator, the Silicon Valley start-up incubator, is a major proponent of basic income as a way to smooth the disruption it expects to result from technological advance, and is currently running its own basic income pilot project in California.

We are already seeing the exacerbation of inequality as a result of technological advancement, as it further concentrates wealth in the hands of the few. Automation will further exacerbate inequality, as it disproportionately impacts low and moderate paying jobs and affects some sectors more than others: jobs in transportation, manufacturing, and office and administrative support are set to be hardest hit, and soonest. Bill Morneau recently specified that truck drivers and receptionists are most likely to see their jobs disappear in the coming years: these are the second most common occupations for men and women respectively across Canada, so it goes without saying that the social ramifications of large scale job loss in these occupations would be extremely significant.

4. The Role of Basic Income

If automation results in job loss at the rate many are predicting, the outcome could be an unprecedented level of structural unemployment. In this scenario, a basic income would make the transition more humane, as the alternative is a large percentage of people living on current social support systems like employment insurance and income assistance, which, as discussed in our last post, leaves many recipients below the poverty line. If inequality continues to rise, redistribution of the significant financial benefits of the robot revolution – especially for those adversely affected – is a moral imperative.

Basic income could also lessen the psychological strain on those affected by precarious work today, and on those whose work may be made redundant by machines in the future. Among the many comments we received, a number of you spoke to the emotional cost of dealing with uncertain work and an insecure future; in our last post we also touched on the psychological hardships of living on social assistance in BC. Some advocates of basic income even view it as a necessary means to prevent social breakdown resulting from the widespread unemployment and poverty that automation would cause. Basic income could also provide an essential way to keep the economy going by giving people the financial means to continue their participation in the market even if they are unable to find new jobs.

Basic income could also help mitigate against rising unemployment levels due to automation. To adapt to a changing world of work, people need the freedom and means to do so. Basic income could enable those affected by automation or the rise in precarious work to retrain for new professions, attend or return to university, college or trade school, or take entrepreneurial risks. Many basic income advocates view this flexibility as a promising way to spur further innovation and job creation, and create benefits for society as a whole. Basic income could also form part of a more visionary response to a changing world of work: by restoring a measure of financial security and freedom, it could help people create meaningful work (paid or unpaid) and foster social connections, as well as supporting volunteering work and community engagement.

5. Conclusion

At this juncture in our history, the dream of a stable, long-term career is disappearing for many, and the strong possibility exists that automation will fundamentally alter our economy and make many careers obsolete. We therefore have the obligation to create forward-thinking policies that enable us to cope with the magnitude of changes that may be coming our way. But we also have an opportunity to do more than just cope. We have the opportunity to harness these changes and create a more equitable and sustainable society that works better for all of us. 

We want to know what you think about the future of work in British Columbia. Please share your thoughts on precarious work, the threat and opportunities of automation, what work means to you, and the role you think basic income could play in a shifting economy. Thank you in advance for your comments.

Basic Income Part II: The Current State of Poverty and Income Assistance in BC

This is the second post in our four-part series exploring the concept of “Basic Income”. Our first post focused on providing background information on the topic.  It prompted more than 60 comments on this site and more than 450 comments on my MLA Facebook page. As a consequence, it is apparent to us that there is broad interest in the idea.

1. Responding to your comments

Our introduction to the concept of basic income received a huge number of thoughtful responses. Many shared their own stories about challenging periods in their lives: time spent living in poverty or on the edge of it, working in precarious or underpaid positions with uncertain futures, and struggling to raise a family or achieve personal goals in this context. We are grateful to everyone who took the time to share their feedback on the idea of a basic income, for the thoughtfulness of the comments and the support and commitment that so many showed to working towards a future that is more just and equitable for all, whether through a basic income policy or other means.

The comments showcased a number of common hopes that people hold for a basic income policy, dissatisfaction with the status quo, and concerns for the risks that a basic income could involve. In this post we will elaborate on some of the themes that we found in the responses, diving deeper into the situation we are in today.

In the responses to our backgrounder, the most widely expressed sentiment was hope in the idea that a basic income policy could end the poverty cycle, eliminate the traps that keep people in poverty throughout their lifetimes and across multiple generations, and treat those in need with greater dignity. In response, in this post we want to focus more closely on the current condition of poverty in BC and our response to it, and highlight how a basic income might offer an alternative solution.

2. Poverty and Social Assistance in BC

We have already highlighted BC’s higher than average rates of poverty, with between 11-16% of adults and 16-20% of children living in poverty, depending on the measure used. Poverty disproportionately affects children and single-parent families: more than half of all children living in single-parent families were living in poverty in 2013, compared to 13% for children in couple families. Aboriginal people, recent immigrants, and people with disabilities are also more vulnerable to poverty.

Estimates of poverty levels differ according to the measure used. The low income measure, low income cut-offs, and the market-based measure are three measures commonly used in Canada.

  1. The low income measure (LIM) is a relative measure, set at 50% of median adjusted household income.
  2. The low-income cut-off  is an income threshold below which a family will likely devote a larger share of its income on the necessities of food, shelter and clothing than the average family. The average family spends 43% of their income on food, shelter, and clothing, whereas families below the low-income cut-off usually spend 63% of their income on these necessities.
  3. The market-basket measure is based on the estimated cost of purchasing a “basket” of goods and services deemed to represent the standard of consumption for a reference family of two adults and two children, including: a nutritious diet, clothing and footwear, shelter, transportation, and other necessary goods and services (such as personal care items or household supplies). The cost of the basket is compared to disposable income for each family to determine low income rates.

Each of these measures result in slightly different statistics, hence the range of numbers used.

3. Details of current social assistance programs

There are a myriad of programs that make up income assistance in BC, specific eligibility requirements, and a complex application process that may include interviews, home check-ins, and mandatory work search periods. In your comments, many of you spoke of the invasiveness, restrictiveness, and stigma of current income assistance programs.

Welfare rates in BC today are $610 per month for a single individual without a disability who is expected to look for work. The rates haven’t increased for nearly 10 years. Advocacy organizations estimate that a single individual on welfare has only $18 per week to spend on food; the organization Raise the Rates recently ran a challenge to illustrate the difficulty of eating on such a small budget. One individual who we spoke with recently shared his personal story of living on income assistance: he is disabled, and so receives income assistance for persons with disabilities, which totals just over $900/month. He wants to return to school to receive training and accreditation, but the strict limits on how much he can save have prevented him from doing so. He is seeking work, but to improve his prospects he needs to get more education, and the claw back of dollars earned has been a disincentive for him to seek out a low-paying job. Furthermore, the affordability crisis has affected him directly: he was evicted because the land on which he lived was being developed into condos, and his new rental unit requires almost all of his income, thus requiring him to rely on food banks for food. He calls being on income assistance “humiliating and constricting”. This individual’s story highlights a number of struggles that many face in trying to move their lives forward while on income assistance.

It’s important to note that many British Columbians living in poverty are not welfare recipients. Working poverty is a growing problem across BC: Vancouver had the second-highest rate of working poverty in the country (behind Toronto), at 8.7% in 2012, although this percentage is likely higher now given the recent affordability crisis affecting the region.  The high cost of living, the low minimum wage, and the growth of precarious employment have contributed to rising levels of working poverty. The minimum wage was recently raised to $10.85/hour, whereas the estimated living wage is $20.02 in Victoria and $20.64 in metro Vancouver. The living wage is what a family needs to cover basic expenses, such as food, clothing, housing, child care, transportation, and a small savings in case of emergencies. It is calculated based on a two-parent two-child family, with both parents working full-time. The discrepancy between the minimum wage and the amount of income required to cover basic expenses leaves many families across our Province below the poverty line.

4. Basic income and poverty reduction

A basic income policy could offer a solution to poverty in BC, if the payments are constructed to ensure that all recipients, in different parts of the province, with different family sizes and different challenges, are able to live above the poverty line. If a basic income replaced our current income assistance programs, individuals in need would no longer have to prove themselves eligible or justify their need for assistance, through completing mandatory work searches, interviews, or home check-ins, for example. Simply falling below the income threshold would automatically qualify you. Replacing our invasive welfare system with a basic income that is framed as an automatic payment program, similar to the tax credits and payments many sections of our society receive today, could reduce significantly the stigma around receiving income assistance. This in itself could have a dramatic effect on the self-esteem and social inclusion of those in need of support. 

One issue that is often brought up in discussions of basic income and poverty reduction is the issue of cost. The cost of a basic income policy is potentially significant but is hard to quantify, since it depends on a wide range of factors, including the amount paid, the eligibility requirements of recipients, and which services it will complement and which it will replace. These factors will be discussed in greater detail in a future post. However, it is essential that, in considering the question of cost, we consider the cost of maintaining the status quo, including the hidden and indirect costs to society of our current levels of poverty.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives estimates that poverty in BC costs society $8.1-$9.2 billion annually. This figure stems from the direct costs of social assistance programs to the government, as well as the adverse consequences of poverty, which have significant costs borne by society as a whole. The consequences of poverty include poor health, due to high levels of obesity, alcohol, tobacco and drug use, as well as inadequate nutrition and physical inactivity), high levels of stress and mental health problems, higher than average levels of domestic abuse, low literacy rates, poor educational performance, and high crime rates. The associated costs of these consequences show up through higher usage of public health care, increased policing needs and costs to the justice system, and lost productivity and economic activity. 

As noted in our previous post, the basic income pilot project undertaken in Manitoba showed significant impacts on the healthcare system in particular: it reduced hospital visits by 8.5%. The decrease in hospital visits was attributed by researcher Evelyn Forget to the reduction of stress in low income families, which resulted in lower rates of alcohol and drug use, lower levels of domestic abuse, fewer car accidents, and lower levels of hospitalization for mental health issues. 

Homelessness, which we explored in a series last winter, is inextricably linked to inadequate income for those working and receiving assistance, a lack of affordable housing, and inadequate access to support services. Homelessness has enormous costs to the BC Government, and a number of studies have found that it costs less to directly address the problem of homelessness and invest in prevention than it does to manage homelessness (see here and here, for example). A basic income could provide an integral part of ending homelessness, but it could not completely supplant other social services, such as supportive housing and mental health and addictions services.

The story of youth in transition is similar: as noted in the previous post, a recent report by the Vancouver Foundation finds that paying all youth ages 18-24 transitioning out of foster care a “basic support fund” of between $15,000-$20,000 would result in overall savings to the Provincial Government of $165-$201 million per year, due to the adverse outcomes youth in transition currently experience and their associated costs.

In your comments, many of you raised concerns specifically with the idea of paying youth a basic income without a work requirement, suggesting that doing so could undermine the development of a work ethic or discourage their entry into the work force. Given the range and magnitude of adverse outcomes that youth in transition currently experience, such a concern may not be warranted, or perhaps should not take priority over helping them avoid such outcomes by whichever means possible. Beyond youth specifically, there was a hesitation expressed by a number of commenters that a basic income would provide a strong disincentive for many people to work, and would thus undermine their sense of self-worth and identity. On the other hand, many of you expressed the mirror image of this thought: that a basic income would provide freedom from the constraints and stress that currently plague those on income assistance, allowing individuals to better their lives, go after their dreams and realize their potential. Which version of this thinking we adhere to depends to a great extent on our assumptions about what factors motivate and prevent people from working, and what gives people satisfaction and fulfillment. This issue will be further explored in our next post in this series.

5. Conclusion

We would appreciate further thoughts from you on the state of poverty and assistance in BC and whether you think a basic income could offer a solution. If you’d like to share a personal story or thoughts that you would prefer not to make public, please email us at andrew.weaver.mla@leg.bc.caIn our next post, will explore the future of work, focusing on the rise of precarious employment and the effects of technological advance. We will discuss what these changes to the world of work will mean for all of us, and how a basic income policy might enable us to respond to these changes as a society.