Why We Can Support Guaranteed Annual Income
Shragge, Eric, Canadian Dimension
It is unclear exactly what the Liberal government intends to do with its reform of social security programs. But given the whack they have taken at the unemployed in the recent budget, we should expect a reform that is regressive.
It is likely that there will be less income for the poor and the unemployed, and greater requirements to get it through various workfare or training schemes. The primary target of the reform will be Unemployment Insurance (UI).
There will be a tendency on the Left to defend UI programs. In the current context this is a necessity, particularly if the reform, as expected, constitutes a further attack on the unemployed.
At the same time as defending past gains, however, the Left has to look beyond a defensive posture and explore some of the issues and alternatives. The reform is an opportunity to put wider issues into the public arena and challenge some of the assumptions that have shaped the current income security system, and argue for ways to go beyond it.
I write this article as an activist who will be involved in this important public debate. I am throwing my support behind the idea of a Guaranteed Annual Income (GAI), not to exclude other progressive means of attacking poverty, such as job creation, but because I believe a return to government-led full employment is not on the agenda.
Because of changes in the labour market such as the growth of part-time work and the types of jobs that can be described as |MacDonald's' capitalism, a discussion about the type of support people should receive is crucial.
Of course, it is equally unrealistic to believe that a GAI such as the one I argue for, is what the government has in mind when it alludes to the idea of a GAI. The Left has to begin to construct an independent vision of the type of society it is promoting. I put the following ideas forward to stimulate debate and to challenge us to renew our vision and understanding of the questions of work, income, and the distribution of wealth.
UI: First principles
Unemployment Insurance was a working class demand in the struggles of the 1930s as a response to the breakdown of work and local social assistance programs. Although UI was not implemented until after World War Two, the principle of the federal government playing a key role in income support programs was established in the 1930s.
UI was viewed as a leap forward. Those in the industrial working class could escape the dreaded means test and the control of the local welfare offices or charities. UI was established as a right for those with a strong attachment to the labour market. It rewarded that attachment with benefits higher than whatever was provided by the local welfare program. As a consequence, two categories of recipients of income support programs emerged - those on UI and those on local welfare.
UI in its origins is based on the assumption that there should be one type of benefit for those workers temporarily unable to support themselves, while the dependent poor should be tied to traditional workhouse welfare.
UI was designed to provide the male worker with temporary income until he was able to find new work to support his family. UI was created as a |malestream' form of welfare during a particular period of high employment in which it was assumed women would stay in the home performing unwaged domestic labour or, at best, part-time work outside the home.
The means test was replaced by a work test in which eligibility was established by contributing to the UI fund for a pre-defined number of weeks. The work test was a more desirable way of establishing eligibility because there was less discretion involved. Contributions acted to secure UI as a right. However, life as an unemployed Canadian is never that simple. Despite the principle that contributions over a given number of weeks act as an entitlement for benefits, the use of bureaucratic rules and regulations, and the interaction between claimant and agent, reintroduced discretionary awards. …