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Explainer: What is a basic income?

Basic income has a long history in Canada. From a basic income pilot that took place in rural Manitoba in the 1970s to a recent and prematurely cancelled pilot that took place in Ontario in 2017-18, basic income has grown from a trendy economic idea to one that is currently being discussed and debated at the highest levels of government.

In 2020, Liberal MP Julie Dzerowicz tabled a private motion for Bill C-273: National Strategy for a Guaranteed Basic Income Act. NDP MP Leah Gazan tabled Motion 46 for a Guaranteed Livable Income. The Liberal Party made basic income a part of their platform during their 2021 leadership convention, and the Green Party made a Guaranteed Livable Income as part of their platform during the 2021 election.

So what is basic income? From the Basic Income Canada Network’s (BICN) website, A basic income is an unconditional cash transfer from government to individuals to enable everyone to meet their basic needs, participate in society and live with dignity, regardless of work status. It is a simple, common-sense alternative to an income security system that is full of gaps and problems, privilege for some and disadvantage for others. In our fast-paced, precarious world  we all face financial risk at times. As individuals—and as a society and economy—we need better options to weather setbacks, stay well, manage transitions and create opportunity.”  

There are different definitions of basic income. Some groups advocate for a Universal Basic Income (UBI), in which everyone receives the same amount of money regardless of other income sources, while others advocate for a Guaranteed Livable Income (GLI), where everyone is guaranteed a minimum income sufficient to live on but the amount of money each person or family receives depends on their income level. 

Basic Income pilots that have taken place around the world have shown high degrees of success. The results of the Ontario Basic Income Pilot showed a great increase in health and mental well-being of its participants, while a recent study that examined several basic income pilots around the world showed that people on BI actually worked more: the only groups of people who didn’t work as much were people who were working as stay-at-home parents/caregivers and people who chose to pursue a higher education. 

If you’re interested, here are some resources and communities to help you learn more about basic income, its different forms, and its history in Canada and the world. 

Basic income organizations:

Basic Income Canada Network: Founded in 2008, BICN is a national organization dedicated to ensure everyone can meet basic needs and live with dignity. They advocate for basic income through working with individuals and organizations, advocacy, presentations and education, and research and policy design.

Basic Income Earth Network: Founded in 2006, BIEN is an international organization that links basic income advocates from all walks of life, and across the world. BIEN organizes an annual international basic income congress in different host countries, and supports and publishes research and projects related to basic income. 

UBIWorks: Founded in 2019, UBIWorks is an organization dedicated to shifting the conversation about basic income to recognize it as an economic need and economic opportunity, with the goal of seeing UBI implemented in Canada.

Books about basic income

These summaries are excerpted from the book’s main descriptions. You can read the full descriptions by clicking through the links below.

The Case for Basic Income (Jamie Swift and Elaine Power): Could a basic income guarantee be the way forward to democratize security and intervene where the market economy and social programs fail? Jamie Swift and Elaine Power scrutinize the politics and the potential behind a radical proposal in a post-pandemic world: that wealth should be built by a society, not individuals. And that we all have an unconditional right to a fair share. 

Utopia for Realists (Rutger Bregman): Universal basic income. A 15-hour workweek. Open borders. Does it sound too good to be true? One of Europe’s leading young thinkers shows how we can build an ideal world today. 

Bootstraps Need Boots (Hugh Segal): This book is a must-read for those who want to find better ways of reducing poverty’s serious effects on people, families, and communities. Readers will be drawn to the author’s passionate, often confessional, narrative about his life-long commitment to poverty reduction and the importance of not looking away from those in need.

Basic Income for Canadians (Evelyn Forget): Forget details what we can learn from earlier basic income experiments in Canada and internationally. She weighs the options, investigates whether Canadians can afford a permanent basic income program and describes how it could best be implemented across the country.

The Plunder of the Commons (Guy Standing): Guy Standing leads us through a new appraisal of the commons, stemming from the medieval concept of common land reserved in ancient law from marauding barons, to his modern reappraisal of the resources we all hold in common – a brilliant new synthesis that crystallises quite how much public wealth has been redirected to the 1% in recent decades through the state-approved exploitation of everything from our land to our state housing, health and benefit systems, to our justice system, schools, newspapers and even the air we breathe. Plunder of the Commons proposes a charter for a new form of commoning, of remembering, guarding and sharing that which belongs to us all, to slash inequality and soothe our current political instability.

Our explainer blog series takes a closer look at the key concepts that guide the Green Resilience Project. To view the entire series, click here.