HALIFAX – High poverty rates and reliance on food banks are evidence the time has come to consider a basic personal income system in Nova Scotia, say advocates.
The Basic Income Guarantee Nova Scotia group pitched the idea Wednesday at the provincial legislature, saying the province needs to work with the federal government on a feasibility study to see what can be done as part of an effort to reduce poverty.
The group’s chairwoman, Dalhousie University professor Elizabeth Kay-Raining Bird, pointed out the concept of a basic income was one of 15 policy resolutions adopted by the federal Liberal Party at its national convention in Halifax last month.
“Research has shown that a basic income is affordable, but provinces cannot do it alone,” said Kay-Raining Bird.
In a petition the group presented to the legislature last month the group said the guaranteed income would be cost effective, with a potential projected annual cost of $21 billion nationally, compared to estimated costs of $72 to $84 billion to keep people living in poverty.
She said more than 21 per cent of children and families in the province live in poverty with rates even higher for Indigenous and African Nova Scotians. A basic income guarantee could help address the effects of poverty she said, including stress, food insecurity, and unsafe housing.
“Pilot studies have shown us basic income delivers benefits … reduces health care costs, encourages people to continue their education, and it does not have any significant impact on employment levels.”
The group said in a region like Atlantic Canada a basic income would also help people stay in rural and remote communities and work in seasonal industries the region depends upon.
It says as technology makes full employment “elusive,” many jurisdictions are looking at ways to ensure the basic needs of people are met outside the labour market.
Dietitian Jennifer Brady, an assistant professor at Mount Saint Vincent University, said that since 2008 food bank usage had risen by 40 per cent in Nova Scotia, a number she called a “shocking and tragic statistic.” About 24,000 Nova Scotians used a food bank in 2016, Brady said.
She said there are clear links between poverty and a lack of nutritious food to the growth of chronic health conditions, including heart disease and diabetes.
Brady said that increased diagnoses isn’t the outcome of bad choices by people.
“It’s the outcome of living with the material deprivation of poverty as well as the chronic stress of constantly wondering where your next meal is coming from or how you are going to pay the bills,” she said.
Group member Wayne MacNaughton struggles with visual impairment and his mobility, and says he’s had to deal with the effects of poverty for the last 20 years.
MacNaughton said having enough income makes a huge difference to people.
“For me, it’s about having the opportunity to buy healthy food and participate in the community,” he said.
Kay-Raining Bird said there are a variety of ways a basic income can be rolled out and they could be considered in detail as part of the feasibility study.
She said one method could see a universal basic income that is “taxed back” from people who don’t need it. She said an examination would also be needed to determine which social programs would stay and which would be discarded.
“Social assistance, obviously would go, but health care and support for mental illness and disabilities obviously would stay.”
Premier Stephen McNeil said he wouldn’t dismiss the idea of a feasibility study offhand, but would need to see in more detail what the group is proposing.
McNeil said the government has been working to ensure those with lower incomes have access to more income. He said those measures include tax cuts, improving income supports and access to affordable housing.
“We will look at what that (basic income) looks like for Nova Scotia over time, but whether it becomes public policy or not that will become a matter of further public debate,” he said.