Media release

New Maytree policy brief looks at the promise of a universal basic income

Published on 16/08/2016

Maytree policy brief examines the idea of a universal basic income and asks whether it would be an improvement over our current social safety net.

While a universal basic income sounds like a better way to reduce poverty, it is expensive and could leave some people worse off. As a newly released Maytree policy brief on this issue argues, it’s time to look at the broader social safety net to see how well it works together and how to better guarantee a decent standard of living.

Basic income, also known as “guaranteed annual income” or “basic income guarantee,” can take different forms, but generally it describes a cash payment to individuals from government. This money is paid to people with no conditions on how it is used or whether they are working or not. The idea of a basic income has become popular again world-wide. Canada is at the heart of this renewed conversation, and the Ontario government is in the midst of developing a basic income pilot project.

“The idea of a universal basic income has a natural appeal,” says Noah Zon, author of the brief and Maytree’s Director of Policy and Research. “Ensuring that people can maintain a decent standard of living and making our social safety net more user-friendly are good goals to focus on. In practice, unfortunately, there is a real risk that a universal basic income could worsen poverty for some people, rather than eliminate it.”

When talking about basic income, we need to clarify which problems the program is trying to solve, whether it would bring us closer to solving these problems, and whether it really is the best way to do so.

The policy brief points out that Canada already has a variety of different basic income policies and programs in place – these are a core strength of the country’s social safety net. In fact, they are some of the most important tools we have to reduce poverty. If policy-makers and governments are interested in a more effective and connected approach to income security, they should focus on building on and improving these systems.

As the Ontario government develops its pilot project and other governments explore basic income approaches, it would be important to keep in mind that it is possible to make our systems better at guaranteeing a minimum level of income without having a single universal program.

Read the policy brief.