Basic Income | What's Left

In a clear victory for rhetoric over substance in the age of post-truth, the Ontario Liberal government has announced that it will run a pilot project to test the so called 'universal basic income” idea. However, from the policy documents that have been released, it is quite obvious the Liberals intend to implement a more regressive version of this deeply flawed policy program. The Liberal-supporting media is tying itself in knots in attempts to support the program. First, a plea decrying Ontario's 'meagre and rule-bound social assistance program' that the provincial government has purposefully manipulated in order to limit access to supports. Then, without a sense of irony, the media say that cash to buy private services is the only way to fix the problems previous Liberal and Conservative governments created through privatization and austerity.

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In a time of deteriorating social services and poverty wages for service providers, the government has somehow found cold hard cash to distribute without increasing taxes – and yet not a penny of it will be spent on improving existing social services or significantly increasing the minimum wage.

Unfortunately, social advocates, desperate for any relent from the cuts, embrace it as a win and defend the government’s decision with irrational hostility.

There is a deep problem with the analysis that leads us to ask if we need a basic income in the first place: that automation under capitalism will lead to mass job loss and thus extreme poverty. This is a very old canard and based on a misunderstanding of how labour, value, and the economy are created.

And liberals love to use this misunderstanding to promote all sorts of privatization and profit-seeking schemes with nice sounding names: social impact bonds, social enterprise, public-private partnerships, shared services, and community benefit agreements. This list goes on.

The question of whether a universal basic income “works” is tautological. Does giving a low-income person money help alleviate their poverty? Of course it does, almost by definition.

However, if solving poverty were this easy, capitalism would have “solved poverty” a long time ago. Poverty and unemployment are not the result of automation and just giving people money is not going to solve either of these issues. Capitalism creates and needs unemployment. And, it should be obvious that those who govern for the profiteers of are not going to implement a basic income that would actually be progressive. Instead, what a basic income seems to achieve under the Ontario Liberal government is the further dismantling of social and public services.

The real question is: What policy solution should progressives, unions, labour activists, and socialists push for in response to the poverty created by capitalism?

The answer to this question: Definitely not a universal basic income.

Should we give money to the poor, oppressed, and those who bear the brunt of crisis? Of course we should. Should we give money to those who cannot work? Of course we should (and do, it is called welfare, Old Age Security, etc.)

But, should we redirect funds that have been taken from public social support over three decades of neoliberal regression, give it to poor people, and forget about the resulting service cuts to healthcare, education, etc.? Absolutely not.

Basic income does nothing to address real and systemic poverty or help those in need. Money in your pocket can only buy services and it is rather barbaric to think that the poor and those in need should have to navigate a dangerous and unscrupulous private marketplace of supports to try to find quality help.

A society should provide the help through the state, through our communities, directly as labour, as housing, as food, and as leisure time. This is one of the main reasons that public sector unions are so essential. They defend public, free at use social programs and support workers who actually provide those needed services.

In the end, whatever service you are going to receive through the private market place of the universal basic income or through the public service, it is going to be provided by a worker. However, only through the public service can families be guaranteed a quality service, that workers receive a paycheque that equally keeps them out of poverty, and that revenues are reinvested into the system instead of being used to pad the pockets of rich tycoons.

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