Book Review: Literary Review of Canada, July 2002

Relentless Incrementalism: Deconstructing and Reconstructing Canadian
Income Security Policy
  by Ken Battle (Ottawa:Caledon Instituteof Social Policy, 2001)*

Ending Poverty: A Basic Income for All Canadians  by François Blais, translated by Jennifer Hutchinson (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 2002)**

The Basic Income Guarantee:Ensuring Progress and Prosperity in the 21st Century by Charles M.A. Clark (Dublin, Ireland: The Liffey Press, 2002)

*[First appeared in Keith Banting, Andrew Sharpe and France St. Hilaire
(eds.) The Review of Economic Performance and Social Progress. The Longest
Decade: Canada in the 1990s
  (Montreal and Ottawa: Institute for Research on
Public Policy and Centre for the Study of Living Standards,  2001)]

**[Originally  published as Un revenu garanti pour tous  (Les Editions du Boreal, 2001)]

Firm and continuing support for universal health care in Canada should interest governments in the idea of universal income security, and three publications open the door to renewed discussion of a basic income, or BI--that is, an assured basic income provided unconditionally to every Canadian as a foundation on which to build a livelihood. In Relentless Incrementalism: Deconstructing and Reconstructing Canadian Income Security Policy and Ending Poverty: ABasic Income for All Candians. Ken Battle and François Blais respectivelyoffer fresh ideas in the Canadian context while Charles Clark, in The BasicIncome Guarantee:Ensuring Progress and Prosperity in the 21st Century, draws on his work in Ireland to provide what could be used as a handbookto weigh the merits and impacts of  a BI in any developed country. Theauthors share  concerns about equity, efficiency, and social inclusiveness,and provide timely perspectives on how to address these challenges.

In the wonderfully-titled Relentless Incrementalism, Caledon Institute presidentKen Battle analyses the transformation of income-security policy in Canada.Relentless incrementaIism --which seems to describe a good many things inCanada these days--is Battle’s view on near-term trends: on the onehand,  a gradual weakening of the Canadian social safety net; on theother, slow progress, via tax and transfer mechanisms, toward a basic incomefloor for all Canadians. He concludes:

"Canada's income security system has performed remarkably well over the
years in narrowing the gap between the affluent and the poor and in
combating growing inequality in market incomes (i.e. income from
employment, investments, private pensions and other non-public
sources)....However, after-tax and [after-] transfer income inequality
crept up during the 1990s as a result mainly of growing market income
inequality and, to a lesser extent, cuts to transfers.

Battle analyses the forces for change in income security and social policies over the past several decades--economic, social/demographic, political and ideological, as well as a new conceptual framework-- that all influencedthe move from a universalist model to a new model that he calls the "post-welfare state". He notes approvingly that the latter model retains the same goals as the former (to make capitalism more "civilizing" and "nurturing") while striving for more efficient, effective and accountable mechanisms  for program delivery, and lists  generally positive  aspects of the post-welfare approach.  Clearly this leads into debate territory.  There is plenty of room to disagree with Battle's optimistic assessment of the concept of the post-welfare approach and of how it is playing oout in practice. For example,  the post-welfare "desire to right the balance between 'active' and 'passive' social programs, reactive and preventive approaches" can be viewed as a path that leads to coercive forms of workfare. Yet this clear statement of the tenets of the post-welfare model provides a useful framework for evaluation as well as debate.

Here is how Battle, a leading advocate of the national child benefit,  describes what he sees as the  good news:
"The National Child Benefit holds out the promise of more than just a
restructuring and enhancement of child benefits.  By removing a large group
(children) from social assistance caseloads, it marks a major step forward
in the essential task of dismantling the welfare system and replacing it
with more effective programs.  The aim should be to transform adultsocial
assistance from its current conception as a last-resort income support
program. It should be modernized in the form of a public wage for adults,
more suitable to an 'active' income security system, combined with a decent
income support system for people unable to work for pay." (45-46)

In essence, he is endorsing the idea of a "public wage for adults" as the foundation of income security. and he applauds what he sees as the move to a negative-income-tax approach to deliver economic security.

"On a positive front, Canada's trend to tax-delivered income-tested
programs is one of its major social policy accomplishments. The personal
income tax system is an efficient and inclusiveness-enhancing vehicle for
delivering important income-tested programs such as federal and provincial
child benefits and refundable tax credits. In sharp contrast to needs-tested
social assistance, tax-delivered benefits are seen to be objective,
administratively simple, fair and non-stigmatizing." (47)

BI advocates will be encouraged by Battle’s endorsement of the idea of  a public wage for adults, and his attention to the benefits of efficiency, inclusiveness and non-stigmatizing ways of delivering that wage.

In Ending Poverty: A Basic Income for All Canadians , Universite Laval politicalscientist François Blais provides a succinct, accessible overview of the BI concept, in the context of the many issues sparked by the idea. As recently-retired Senator Lois Wilson notes in the foreword, he "callsfor a rethinking of our social partnership model in a capitalistic societyand for maintaining an equitable and just equilibrium between efficiency and equality in our economic relationships."

Blais believes firmly in the need to reform the welfare system in Canada. For the "non-working poor"-- those unable to work or unable to find workand with no other source of income--the level of social assistance generallyfalls short of meeting even their basic needs.  Burgeoning food banks,the well-publicized lack of affordable housing and the plight of heretoforeunthinkable numbers of homeless people all speak to this failure. Yet, Blaisnotes, anti-poverty groups and pressures on governments  to increaseassistance meet with resistance on a number of grounds--not least of whichis fear that low-paid working poor would see a  narrowing gap betweentheir wages and assistance payments as a reason to quit their jobs, whichin any case do not free them from poverty. Would raising the minimum wageaddress that problem?  Not if employers were forced, or inclined, tocut jobs, and not if today’s contingent--temporary, part-time, contract,etc.--employment remains the trend. Add to these binds the familar trapsin assistance systems that claw back earned income to the level of the assistanceamount .

Blais argues that a tax-free, unconditional BI distributed to every citizen would be the most efficient and equitable way to fight poverty. There would be no clawback, and taxation of earned income above the BI could be designed to maximize the welfare of the least well off. He argues controversiallythat a BI would make low-wage jobs more viable "by  financing the potential holders of these jobs rather than their bosses" (18). He maintains that allowing these jobs to exist would permit the people who hold them "to remain active, to improve their know-how and to reintegrate more easily into the more lucrative segment of the job market." (18).

Flagging the hard questions is one of the strengths of this book, and inhis final chapter, Blais looks at particulars that would need to be addressed in any serious discussion of a BI for Canada. His theme here appears to be gradualism:  the slow, gentle phasing out of the current menu of benefits to reduce the new costs of a BI, cautious re-jigging of the tax structure, of necessity a political exercise and, perhaps most debatable among BI advocates, starting with a partial BI set below the current social assistance level.

This is an invaluable book for anyone looking for a more sustainable, effective way to keep Canada a just and equitable society. It is not a tract, however, but rather a cordial invitation to join the discussion of BI as a possible path to that goal.

In Clark’s comprehensive look at the suitability  of the BI concept for Ireland, he also addresses issues of efficiency and equity, maintaining that there is no necessary tradeoff between the two.  The Basic Income Guarantee  is centrally concerned with how best to achieve the social justice goals to which Ireland has committed itself .  Clark, a professor of economics at St. John’s University in New York, has worked closely as a researcher with BI advocates in Ireland to provide the underpinnings of a concrete BI proposal. He sees Ireland--in common with mature post-industrial countries worldwide--facing two major challenges: "1) How successfully it competes in the global economy and 2) how it can ensure that the economic progress that comes from success in the global economy is both real and shared by all." (11)

Clark’s book could  serve as a guide to assessing the costs, benefits and feasibility of instituting a BI in any developed country seeking to design a 21st-century welfare system while maintaining its competitive advantages. Even the economics-challenged will find rich food for thought in his discussions of BI in the contexts of competitiveness, the changing labour market andthe reduction of inequality ("economic progress for all").  For an economist, Clark is considerate of the general reader and the text is blessedly jargon-free.

He rounds out his book with a brief look at other BI approaches to providing economic security that vary in their universality, conditionality, levelof payments and modes of financing. These variations would, of course, bethe subject of political negotiation in any country seriously consideringsuch a re-design of its welfare system. In conclusion,  he marshalshis arguments for a BI for Ireland by showing systematically  how itwould support the widely held societal principles outlined in the first chapter:benefits for all (since nature and its resources are for the benefit of all);guaranteed adequacy of income; no poverty traps; equity of treatment; efficiency,simplicity and transparency; reduced dependency; and increased inclusivenessdue to more employment.  These principles lie very close to any listthat Canadians would endorse, so Clark’s conclusions provide anotherincentive for us to reconsider the BI path to a better social partnership.

Sally Lerner