I’d support a minimum guaranteed income law. Too bad one doesn’t exist.

If you’ve spent any amount of time out of work, whether you’re disabled or not, you know it hurts. It hurts twice if you’re out of work with any kind of disability–particularly as you’ve already got at least one strike against you. Governments think they’re helping, usually–when they’re not actively trying to do everything but, but more often than not the services most people have access to equate approximately to barely covering the rent if you happen to ask nicely. There are probably a few exceptions, depending on your definition of exceptions, but for the most part it goes approximately like this:

  • Step 1: Pray like nothing else your disability/welfare deposit comes in on time and for the correct amount. Optionally curse a blue streak when it doesn’t.
  • Step two: Try and ring up your caseworker, pray she’s in her office, pray she’s awake, pray she’s not currently mid-moodswing, and pray twice she’s not stuck using what escentially amounts to barely tested beta software (I’m looking at you, Ontario).
  • Step 3: Quite probably curse as at least one of those nested if statements turns false before your eyes. If you’re lucky, it may only be 1.
  • Step 4: Explain, probably twice, and a third time for good measure, that yes you’re broken again and could she kindly fix you and damn well mean it this time.
  • Step 5: Spend the rest of the month catching up on barely paying for the things you meant to pay for before your deposit went pair shaped.
  • Step 6: Repeat steps 1-5 as needed.

If the system works perfectly, you can likely skip that whole dance–and still have enough money left over for perhaps a cup of coffee if you haven’t gotten real good at getting real creative real fast. Which is still a problem, but it’s not necessarily the one problem with the potential to be your complete undoing. The problems that could potentially be your complete undoing are pretty much all administrative, mostly unnecessary and usually avoidable if the people handling the files would demonstrate a collective IQ above about 2.1.

I’m going to bash on Ontario, specificly the Ontario disability support Program (ODSP) and Ontario Works (OW), for two very simple reasons. Reason the first: I’m far too familiar with the system here for my own good–and have written way too much about them to be healthy. And reason the second: It’s not all sunshine and roses–and people who show up here looking for info on what they offer (this has happened) need to see that.

ODSP and OW come from a very similar set of procedures, slightly tweeked to account for the intended difference in clients. Which also means they come with the same, or close to the same, set of problems. Specificly, the process of actually providing the services hangs them up and they’re left spinning their wheels while figuring out how to actually provide the services–when they’re not taking their sweet time not approving you, anyway. So you’re left with a wheelchair user having to pay out of pocket to sort out complications ODSP was explicitly designed to cover, because ODSP has dropped the ball. Again.

It’s not *entirely* the fault of ODSP/OW for the way the system’s been bent out of shape. They’re covering their respective asses, more often than not–and that covering process tends to trip them up. It’s not a complete excuse, but when you’re alternating between people who’d rather be on ODSP than working and a system that seems set up to both allow and encourage it, you can kind of see why a little coverage is required.

There is a possible way around problems like this, and we largely have systems in place already that would be capable of handling it if a government were so inclined to develop enough of a spine to put it in place. Rather than an overcomplicated system of disability/welfare payments that seems to depend more on the phase of the moon than your medical condition, why not just move to a system of guaranteed annual income and be done with it? Take the payments out of the hands of social services, which comes with enough of its own stigma as it is, and hand it over to either provincial or federal tax authorities, say–like they already do in some jurisdictions for assessing things like your HST rebates, for those who get them. Or child tax, if that’s mildly more relevant for context purposes. The only requirement for determining whether or not you qualify for this particular benefit, then, would presumedly be your income tax filings–which you should be submitting if you’re not working anyway because potentially helpful.

The trend is to increase the minimum wage instead–Alberta’s government was considering a $15 minimum wage at one point, which would help, but only if you happen to be already working–and only then if your employer hasn’t decided the increase is going to cost too much and your particular job isn’t worth what they’re expected to pay. But there are more than a few good reasons to change that trend, which at least some parts of that same government are making vague-sounding rumbling noises about.

A minimum guaranteed income would accomplish the one thing no social services system has been able to actually do with any degree of success, if it’s executed properly. Get people off social services, and living moderately independently while they try and hopefully succeed at getting their feet under them. Unfortunately, and this is more than likely precisely why it’s not a thing that’s anywhere close to happening yet, proper execution is far from guaranteed–and getting there will be far from popular in just about any jurisdiction.

First, the receiving end of the spectrum. We’re assuming the idea behind a system like this is to give people just that little boost closer to the poverty line–the general assumption that was supposed to be the intent of social services, before it wasn’t. That means we’d need to see a minimum guaranteed income in or around the $19000 per year range to be considered closeish to the cutoff line. Doable, perhaps, but not easy–and it still won’t be entirely equal, though it would be more equal than the current system.

This is the part where I start to throw numbers at you. So if you’re the type that goes crosseyed at the prospect, 1: I know the feeling and 2: I warned you. Ontario’s minimum wage is about $11.25 as it stands right now. Crunch a few numbers based on a 40-hour work week, and you come out with $23400 in before-tax income on the year. Assuming they set the cutoff for this new guaranteed income plan at $19000, the actual hourly rate would be just slightly over $2 cheaper (at $9.13, based on that same 40-hour work week). So anyone who can’t find a job for more reasons than I feel like ever writing down in an entry would still lose out, but not by all that much in the grand scheme of things–and by a whole lot less than what they do now. Contrast this with the maximum you’d be entitled to on a system like ODSP, without the extras for things like special dietary requirements. Based on that same 40-hour work week, an ODSP recipient who’s actually entitled to the maximum allowed would earn $13176 on the year, or $6.33 per hour. Nearly half what Ontario’s current minimum wage is at present. And with the insentives against going out and finding work (see above), which would only end up hurting you long-term unless you found work at a rate of pay significant enough that it cancels out your ODSP entirely, the situation doesn’t end up actually doing a whole lot of helping you–and even if it does, the extra paperwork it requires, and the multiple opportunities for that extra paperwork to grow legs and wander off somewhere, don’t make it something most people look forward to actually doing.

Contrast that to the process for either reducing or getting completely off the minimum guaranteed income list–or getting back on it, if somewhere down the road your prospects take a turn for the nonexistent. As I said elsewhere, presumedly you’re filing your income taxes whether you’re working or not, particularly if you’ve got student loans–as keeping track of that becomes slightly easier at that point when it comes time to figure out how much of those loans you can claim credit for paying back. If the system is set up properly, meaning tied to your income tax filings similar to some other benefits you can claim from the government, then your eligibility for the minimum guaranteed income is either validated or revoked by virtue of the very same process you’d be going through anyway. So our person making minimum wage above, while maybe not flying in style, would be able to get himself off the minimum guaranteed income provision just by indicating he now has a job that pays him that minimum wage. If yearly income is more than minimum income threshold, minimum income doesn’t apply. If he later ends up losing that job and taking employment insurance, then the next time he files his taxes he’ll likely come in at or below the theoretical $19000 income cutoff. There’s probably a lot of room for maneuverability and all sorts of fun and games to make the system a little more fluid than the example I’ve just described, but given it’s a thought bubble at worst at the moment and a working theory sitting on some government staffer’s stack of paperwork at best, I’m using what I have to work with as a loose baseline. It will probably be challenged. Please do.

And now we get into the not so fun part of all this, and the reason I don’t expect to see one–not even one spearheaded by Alberta’s new NDP government–in the foreseeable future. The fairly significant matter of funding this provision. From the opinion piece on minimum guaranteed income linked earlier on:

But notice how it works. The benefit is a social obligation; thus, it is socially financed, i.e., through the tax and transfer system. Everybody pays for it (though the more you make the more you pay) and everybody is eligible for it (though the more you make the less you receive). It is available whether you are in work or out, and has no impact either on the willingness of workers to supply their labour or the willingness of employers to demand it.

The problem, roughly summarized, is that everybody pays. So the people who would have an issue with handing over their money for social assistance funding would very likely still have an issue with handing it over for this fund. The difference is, on a more technical level, they’d be as eligible to receive the benefit as, say, I would–though perhaps, depending on their particular situation, they might not see it that way if they’re paying in more on balance than they’re technically getting out of it. The trick, then, would be to frame that discussion in such a way that it’s not so much a net loss to the ones doing most of the paying. Which, incidentally, is precisely why I don’t particularly see it happening any time soon.

governments of just about any stripe, on principle, mean well–at least when they initially take office. They have their ideas, their pet projects, their whatever, but at the end of the day, they ran on something they thought would improve the situation. They were elected on that something. Then they get into the details and one of two things happens. either the government decides–truthfully or not–that the thing they ran on is quite a bit more involved to put in place than they figured, so they try to dance around it without being run over by the train of broken promises let loose by the government they just replaced, or the details of what they’re looking to implement are–mostly–released to the public, who decides that wasn’t what they signed on for in the first place, and that thing that got the government elected isn’t quite as popular now as it was on election day. Either way, like so many other potentially decent ideas, the details get hung up on how it’s being paid for, who’s paying, how much and why isn’t $GroupOfTheWeek exempt from these new taxes. Enter the problem with getting something like this minimum income provision approved. If any government with this kind of a brainstorm doesn’t articulate it exactly right, and I haven’t seen a government yet with that particular ability, the media will be pumping out headlines to the tune of “$government introduces new employment tax” and that’ll be the end of that in incredibly short order.

I would love, absolutely, to see a system of minimum guaranteed income put in place. I’d openly support something like that–and might actually be convinced to vote for anyone who’d willingly step up to the plate with an idea like that. It’s a sad, sad shame such a beast doesn’t exist.

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