How Should Christians Respond to a Guaranteed Livable Basic Income?
In a previous article, we gave a basic overview of Bill S-233 and Bill C-223, two identical bills in the Senate and House of Commons that propose to create a national framework for a guaranteed livable basic income. In that article, we dealt with specific questions that had been raised about these bills by our supporters and sought to allay any confusion around these bills.
In this second part, we hope to engage more in-depth on the question of what a guaranteed livable basic income is, what it would look like in a Canadian context, and whether such a plan is feasible. We will also engage with the ethics of such a plan, and whether Christians should support or oppose such a plan.
What is a guaranteed liveable basic income?
The key idea behind a guaranteed liveable basic income (also called a guaranteed basic income, universal basic income, or just basic income) is that the government would provide a substantial sum of money to each of its citizens on a regular basis. For example, the government could provide each of its citizens $1500 per month as a basic income that each citizen would supplement with their own labours. Each basic income proposal essentially differs on four elements: how much money each person would receive, who would receive this money, how long people would receive this money for, and what happens to this basic income when people work and earn their own income.
The guaranteed basic income proposals that have recently been proposed have settled on two of those four elements: they propose that every Canadian adult (17+) should be eligible and that these income payments would continue until the person dies. What is unclear is how generous these payments would be and what happens to this basic income when people begin working and earning their own income. To get an idea of how much money could be involved and what would happen to this money once people begin working, consider a recent Ontario basic income pilot project that ended in 2019. This pilot project provided a single person with $16,989 over the course of a year (approximately $1416 per month), a level of income that by itself placed the recipient still below the official poverty line. For every dollar a person earned, the government reduced this basic income by fifty cents, implying that once a person earned $33,978 (approximately $2832 per month), they would no longer retain any guaranteed basic income payments from the government.
It should be noted that Canada already has forms of a basic income for certain groups of people:
- Employment insurance provides a basic income (55% of average weekly earnings) for 14-45 weeks for those who are unemployed.
- The temporary Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) provided $500 per week to unemployed people during the worst period of the COVID pandemic.
- The Canadian Pension Plan, Old Age Security, and the Guaranteed Income Supplement provide a basic income for seniors until they die.
- Provincial welfare payments provide between $7,920-$13,005 per year to those in extreme poverty in perpetuity.
- Provincial disability payments provide a basic income for those unable to work due to disability.
- The Canada Child Benefit could also be considered a type of basic income provided to families based on the number of children they have.
It is not only secular governments and political parties that have suggested forms of basic income. The Christian Heritage Party has proposed a family care allowance that provides families with $1000 per month ($12,000 per year) if one parent chooses to remain at home until all their children graduate from high school.
What is unique about modern basic income proposals is that they are universal. Recipients don’t need to be unemployed, or seniors, or poor, or parents to receive a basic income. Every adult would be eligible in perpetuity, dependent solely on their annual income.
What is the purpose of a universal basic income?
Supporters describe several purposes of a universal basic income.
First, they claim it would reduce or eliminate poverty. Poverty in Canada is measured in a variety of ways, but all the poverty measures focus on a person’s annual income. If they don’t earn some basic level of income (e.g. one measure of poverty, the market basket measure, for a typical family in small-town Ontario is about $42,000 a year) they are considered poor. The theory is that if the government supplemented the income of poor families, then there would technically be fewer people in poverty.
A second purpose of such a policy according to its supporters is to provide income stability. Some economists theorize that people would be more likely to go back to school or upgrade their skills if they knew that they would have a basic income to rely on during that time, instead of being entirely without an income. Another theory is that people will be able to wait longer to find a better job for their skill set. For example, a person trained to be an electrician currently may be forced to take a cashier position at a local grocery store because he needs to make ends meet.
A third stated purpose of a universal basic income would be efficiency. The federal government and various provincial governments already have dozens of tax credits and income supports with different application forms, different rates, different eligibility requirements, and different tax-back rates. Supporters of a universal basic income (including some libertarians) claim that this policy would replace almost all of these complicated programs with one simple one.
Finally, the overarching claim of a universal basic income is “fairness” or “equality.” Many people see the enormous differences in incomes in Canada and think that this income inequality is unfair or that automation will make work scarce for many people. Proponents suggest that a basic income could make income and opportunity a little more equal in Canada.
What are some concerns with establishing a guaranteed livable basic income?
While supporters of basic income make some valid points on the surface, there are many reasons to be concerned about the ethics of introducing a guaranteed livable basic income in Canada:
The core problems of poverty are often wrapped up in individual social, mental, and physical challenges rather than just being about money.
Poverty and individual social, mental, and physical challenges are inextricably linked. Such problems may include abusive relationships that keep an individual from being able to thrive, mental illness or disability which leaves the individual unable to get or keep a job, lack of family or social support, or addiction that leaves the individual without help. These individuals often find themselves in a vicious cycle that can be difficult, if not impossible, to escape. If the root cause of their poverty is not identified and dealt with first, poverty will not be alleviated, regardless of the amount of money provided.
Money is a blunt tool to address poverty. It only addresses the financial side of poverty. The social, physical, or mental causes of poverty also need to be diagnosed and addressed to alleviate poverty. For example, the barriers to employment faced by someone with a disability are not removed by an increase in income.
A universal basic income disincentivizes work.
Work is an essential element of being human. From the beginning and before the Fall, God directed Adam to work. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15). The philosopher of Ecclesiastes also states, “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.” (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13) The New Testament also contains the command, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” (Colossians 3:23-24).
A negative aspect of a guaranteed livable basic income is that, while it is intended well, and there are those who are in genuine need due to challenges they face, it will disincentivize those who are able to work and earn an income from doing so.
It is important to note that government can also disincentivize work in other ways. Child benefits, for example, incentivize good things such as supporting families but may also disincentivize paid work by making it financially possible for one parent to remain home. This argument on its own is not enough to push opposition to Bill S-233 and Bill C-223.
The cost is exorbitant.
This short 2-page bill does not address the massive cost outlay that will be required in order to fund a program like a guaranteed livable basic income. The massive cost of a universal basic income and its fundamental decoupling of income from work has much greater implications for biblical financial stewardship and the biblical calling to work than a much smaller program that provides financial assistance to those who are physically or mentally unable to work. Even putting aside its disincentives to work and the government’s limited role in responding to poverty, a universal basic income is so expensive that it is incompatible with the biblical ethic of stewardship.
For example, compare a universal basic income to the CERB payments made over the last two years at a cost of approximately $77 billion (so $38.5 billion/year). According to the government, this was the largest wage subsidy since World War II. In 2021, Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer placed an estimate on a universal basic income program at $85 billion per year, based on Ontario’s test-run of the plan in 2017. That’s roughly twice the cost of CERB. Further to the previous point about disincentivizing work, if unemployment is unintentionally encouraged, then the workforce earning taxable money to produce this massive subsidy also dwindles.
Who is best placed to provide support for poverty reduction?
As ARPA has mentioned elsewhere, the “first responder” to the problems of poverty or a lack of employment isn’t the government. Dr. Cornelis van Dam, Emeritus Professor of Theology at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary, states that, for such problems, the “government should be the last institution of society to which one should need to turn for help.” As far as possible, every individual should work and prepare for times of financial hardship (2 Thess. 3:10, Eph. 4:28). God created humanity to work even before the Fall (Genesis 2:15). After the Fall, work became toilsome, and man’s livelihood depended on his work (Genesis 3:19). We might call individual responsibility to work the first line of defence against poverty and unemployment. The second line of defence is a person’s family (1 Timothy 5:4). The third line of defence is fellow church members and the institutional Church (through the diaconate).
The assistance provided by a source close to the individual is best and most effective. This includes providing for basic needs of food and shelter and transportation but extends to relational care, social supports, rehabilitation, and more. Those facing social, physical, and mental barriers have specific needs that the blunt instrument of cash alone cannot resolve. They need the involvement of people who care. They need helping hands.
In the cases where families can do this, this will already be taking place – so what about those whose families cannot provide help? The institution next best equipped to help are local communities, particularly the church. Numerous passages in the New Testament alone command or describe the church’s role in poverty alleviation. For instance, the office of deacon was first instituted to care for widows, one group of people who were constantly threatened by poverty (see Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 5). Other passages command believers to care for their poor brethren (1 John 3:17-18, Galatians 6:8-9, and Romans 12:13).
From there, charities are the best placed to provide the highest-quality assistance to these individuals. Organizations that provide housing for the homeless, that engage directly in local communities to help with job searches and who work to remove barriers to access to buildings within the community for those with disabilities and more. The government should start any poverty-reduction policies by supporting families, communities, and charities in their community-level work in reducing poverty. In communities where such charities are limited or face financial challenges, the government could support the creation of new charities to meet the needs of those citizens.
Van Dam suggests that the government should only intervene if the individual, the family, or the Church are unable or unwilling to help. A universal basic income reverses that order. It makes the government the first, or at least the primary, source of financial help. Only in the absence of community supports should the government step in to assist, and then only as a temporary measure. Governments should see the importance of relational, accountable involvement from those closest to the individuals in need, who can also be the hands and feet in that community to bring about poverty reduction.
Of course, the government does have some responsibility to seek the general welfare of its citizens. Psalm 72 declares that the king should “defend the cause of the poor of the people [and] give deliverance to the children of the needy… he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy and saves the lives of the needy.” But even when it comes to governments, the progression should be from local to national – municipal first, then regional, then provincial, and lastly national.
One key benefit of this arrangement is that the beneficiaries of support are also accountable to those who are helping them. It reduces the ability of those who don’t genuinely need the help to find ways to abuse the system. More direct family, social, or charitable support will typically go to those who need it the most.
If not a guaranteed livable basic income, what then?
It is important to be cautious against the tendency with programs like this to virtue-signal care and compassion. Compassion is not a zero-sum game. It is not necessarily more compassionate to support a guaranteed livable basic income and heartless to oppose it. There are different ways to solve the same problem. It is also possible that what seems like a heartfelt solution can make the problem worse and further entrench the social problems that bring Canadians into poverty in the first place.
Our first alternative to a guaranteed basic income is non-political. Families, churches, and charities need to be prepared for the hard work required to aid those in poverty.
In the political realm, we would urge the government to reject a guaranteed livable basic income and instead work towards other means of poverty reduction and elimination that include, but are not limited to:
- Incentivizing people to work (e.g. through an expanded Canada Workers Benefit)
- Encouraging and incentivizing the involvement of families in holistic poverty reduction (i.e. increasing the caregiver’s tax credit, making the eligible dependent tax credit and disability amount transferred from a dependent tax credit more flexible and comprehensive, and introducing new benefits)
- Supporting local community-based charities that are working hard to reduce problems like homelessness, drug addiction, and more by tackling the root of these problems and their connection to poverty.
- Supporting municipal governments in the support of local non-governmental programs towards poverty elimination.
Modern proposals for a guaranteed or universal basic income seek to provide every Canadian adult with a certain level of income. Although Canada has many programs that provide a basic level of income to various groups for various lengths of time, a universal basic income is a much larger version of these programs. While supporters of the policy tout its potential to reduce poverty, provide income stability, streamline government policy, and create fairer outcomes, the policy runs up against several biblical principles. It reduces the individual incentive to work, and it displaces the role of the family, the Church, and other institutions in civil society to alleviate poverty and support employment. But the largest hole that sinks the universal basic income proposal is its prohibitive cost that obliterates the biblical calling to faithful stewardship.
 Cornelis van Dam, God and Government (USA: Wipf, 2011), 153–54.
 Wayne Grudem, Politics According to the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 281; Cornelis Van Dam, God and Government, 153–54.