Currently, there are two bills, S-233 and C-223, whose passing could open the door to the creation of a livable basic income program for which any low-income Canadian can qualify. Like the Canada Child Benefit or Old Age Security, a livable basic income should be available to anyone whose earnings fall below the poverty line. No means testing. No questions asked. No shame nor stigma.
“It’s just basic justice that people have enough money to survive” and to ensure “that people aren’t living in poverty in a wealthy country,” says Evelyn Forget, a professor of economics and community health sciences at the University of Manitoba.
Instead, now, Canadians whose yearly gross income falls below the low-income cut-off — which ranges between $18,941 and $72,814 depending on location and household size — are consistently stripped of their agency, autonomy and dignity when they apply for income supports.
Our social support system has veered away from a “revolving door” model, where people were expected to access benefits as needed, to one that’s invasive, punitive and stigmatizing. The reason for this is related to our conception of poverty.
Sorting ‘undeserving’ from ‘deserving’
Once regarded as a temporary affliction caused by external factors, poverty today is often perceived as a moral failure, explains Tracy Smith-Carrier, an associate professor of humanitarian studies at Royal Roads University.
“It’s this present pervasive assumption that people must have done something wrong to be in the circumstances they’re in,” she says, noting that this has led to the categorization of people experiencing poverty in two groups: the deserving, and the undeserving.
To determine who belongs in what group, governments use mechanisms such as means testing to evaluate applicants’ assets, and ensure they’re not taking advantage of the system. In other words, that they lack a desire to work.
However, the widespread idea that poverty is caused by laziness has been disproven, Smith-Carrier says. “The causes of poverty are volatile labour markets, the lack of good paying jobs, pandemics, housing unaffordability, racism and discrimination in the workplace, cost of living.”
Despite the evidence, outdated notions of worthiness and deservingness are entrenched in the policies that regulate access to income supports across the country. As a result, Canada’s income assistance programs are failing to achieve their goal: keeping people out of poverty.
“Social assistance programs don’t even provide half of what is necessary to meet the poverty line,” Smith-Carrier says. “These programs create poverty, they don’t address it.”
Alberta’s last resort welfare system
The influence of these myths on public policy is evident in Alberta, a province at the forefront of last-resort welfare, where income supports are not available until all other avenues have been exhausted.
There are two income support programs in Alberta, Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped, or AISH, for those with a permanent disability, and Alberta Works for those expected to work on either a full- or part-time basis.
However AISH remains below the poverty line and the barriers to access this benefit are high. In a recent report, Vibrant Communities Calgary, or VCC, a community organization tasked with implementing the city’s poverty reduction strategy, identified AISH eligibility criteria as one of the program’s main shortcomings. Others are insufficient benefits, high penalty rates for AISH recipients who engage in paid work, and a punitive cohabitating policy.
“As long as you can produce medical documentation that you have a barrier to employment, you’re not going to be hounded quite as much by your caseworker,” says Lee Stevens, a policy and research specialist at VCC, and author of the report.
For able-bodied Albertans deemed capable of working full time, supports are much lower — and come with significant strings attached.
To qualify for a baseline monthly allowance of $440, an individual Albertan has to prove they’re actively and systematically searching for employment (unpaid work, such as volunteering or caring for a family member, doesn’t count). And any additional income they receive is partially deducted, or clawed back, from their monthly allowance. This makes it impossible to effectively get out of poverty.
“The system is completely inefficient and ineffective,” Stevens says, pointing at the stability a livable basic income would provide to Albertans. “The desire of a basic income is to start combining some of these programs, streamline the system a bit, and create some certainty and security for people.”
Barriers to a livable basic income
Evidence shows that implementing a livable basic income would address many of the challenges perpetuated (if not created) by the existing patchwork of income assistance programs in Alberta and across Canada.
According to Forget, social assistance based on income testing alone would allow people to earn money — and to save it.
“If you can’t save money, if you can’t put money aside, it becomes almost impossible to get yourself out of poverty,” she says, pointing at the expenses folks on income support are unable to afford without savings, such as first- and last-month’s rent, or acquiring the pricey tools certain occupations require.
Because access to income supports is currently determined by means testing, eligibility is contingent on the maintenance of a certain degree of poverty. The closer one gets to the poverty line, so does the likelihood of losing one’s benefits altogether. This situation reflects a rampant distrust towards impoverished Canadians.
“We have a lot of programs put in place to help people,” Forget says. “But those programs are all designed, implemented and delivered by middle-class people.”
Hilary Chapple is one whose life would be far more stable and promising under a basic income approach. Instead, she is caught in the tangled web of Alberta’s welfare system.
Late in the summer of 2019, Chapple was diagnosed with spinal osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. Because this ailment severely undermined her capacity to work, that fall she applied to receive AISH.
After five months of filling out paperwork for means and income testing, as well as undergoing physical and psychological evaluations to determine her eligibility to the program, in March 2020, Chapple received her first disability deposit.
The stability of a monthly allowance of $1,087 would keep her afloat for the following three years. But things changed last December, when a new case worker found an error in Chapple’s file.
At the time of her application, Chapple lived in Calgary’s northwest with her wife, which she told her caseworker helping her fill out her forms. But somehow that fact didn’t make it into her file.
“They reviewed my whole file, found out I was married,” says Chapple, who was told she owed the government $22,000 in overpayments. The shock of that big bill hit Chapple hard because she’d lived homeless for a period.
Chapple’s situation isn’t uncommon. According to Greg Stead, director of investigations at the Alberta ombudsman’s office, the complaints his office receives are often related to procedural irregularities, including clerical errors. “Decisions about those programs can deeply affect people,” he says. “So it’s natural that when people are affected so significantly, that they will exhaust all available mechanisms of appeal.”
Chapple did appeal to the authorities. And lost. “The AISH Act needs to be changed,” she says. “So people who are married do not get dinged the same way I am.”
Chapple would have been spared all this if there existed an income-tested benefit to ensure all Canadians have enough money to afford basic expenses, regardless of their marital status, living arrangements or capacity to work.
Proponents believe this model can effectively eradicate poverty, unlike existing social supports. But the road ahead is still lengthy. While critics often focus on the administrative hurdles to implementing a basic income, this isn’t the biggest challenge.
The myths that perpetuate the stigmatization of poverty as an individual failure are also barriers to its eradication.
“I think the big barrier behind all of it is the general unwillingness of the population to trust one another,” Forget says. “To trust people to make their own decisions about their lives.”