Be care­ful what you wish for...

Ex­pen­sive plan would re­sult in work dis­in­cen­tive; wouldn’t ad­dress root prob­lem

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - BY DON PRIDMORE Don Pridmore, of Charlottetown, is a re­tired civil ser­vant. He worked for the De­part­ment of Health and So­cial Ser­vices in the 1990s.

The Guardian has on sev­eral oc­ca­sions ex­pressed its sup­port for a ba­sic in­come guar­an­tee (e.g. editorial “Dol­lars over data,” July 27, 2017). Pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment mem­bers and so­cial ad­vo­cates have also pro­posed a pi­lot pro­ject for P.E.I.

The in­tent for an in­come guar­an­tee is laud­able. We all want to see peo­ple do well, par­tic­u­larly the most vul­ner­a­ble. But will the re­sults be those that are in­tended?

To me, there is a fun­da­men­tal prob­lem with the con­cept. In­come guar­an­tees ad­dress the symp­tom of poverty, not the causes.

Per­haps a fa­ble will il­lus­trate this point.

Once upon a time, in a place not un­like our own, there was a med­i­cal clinic. It had many doc­tors and nurses but there al­ways seemed to be un­met needs; peo­ple wait­ing, mal­adies un­treated.

The ad­min­is­tra­tor of the clinic took note that there was a com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor for all the pa­tients – they were all in pain or dis­com­fort. So he came up with a sim­ple, all-in­clu­sive so­lu­tion. He laid off the med­i­cal staff, pro­vided all clients with pain re­liev­ers and sent them home.

It started off not badly. Ev­ery­one’s most im­me­di­ate need was met. For some it ac­tu­ally worked out well. They had re­lief and they pro­gressed to bet­ter and sus­tained health. For most, how­ever, not so much. They needed stitch­ing, or med­i­ca­tions, or ther­apy or other ser­vices.

What’s worse, for some pa­tients the process de­vel­oped a de­pen­dence on pain re­lief. They never did re­cover.

Now, back to re­al­ity, no­body would ever run a med­i­cal clinic this way. Yet is this not the ap­proach of an in­come guar­an­tee? If peo­ple are poor, give them some in­come.

Peo­ple fall into poverty for many rea­sons. It could be a lack of ed­u­ca­tion or train­ing, health prob­lems, fam­ily is­sues, men­tal health chal­lenges, low wages, poor econ­omy, etc. While the guar­an­tee would pro­vide im­me­di­ate re­lief, it wouldn’t ad­dress the lim­it­ing is­sues. Worse, it would al­most def­i­nitely cre­ate de­pen­dence.

This is crit­i­cal be­cause our sense of well be­ing of­ten re­volves around work and pro­duc­tiv­ity. It is un­in­tended by the au­thors, but an in­come guar­an­tee would be a dis­in­cen­tive to work. It would serve not to en­able peo­ple but to se­date them.

Ad­vo­cates would re­spond that there is no rea­son a guar­an­tee couldn’t be com­bined with sup­port mea­sures to bet­ter ad­dress th­ese bar­ri­ers. Per­haps, but this is where a crit­i­cal ques­tion comes in – where will the money come from?

An in­come guar­an­tee is enor­mously ex­pen­sive. Some of the cost would have to come from new money; there is just no other way. But some of the fund­ing would have to be taken from ex­ist­ing pro­grams. Em­ploy­ment in­surance, job cre­ation, com­mu­nity devel­op­ment, coun­selling ser­vice and oth­ers would all be on the chop­ping block. In most cases, it would be the very ser­vices low in­come peo­ple most de­pend upon.

And what of the sav­ings pro­jected for re­duced de­mand on things such as health care and the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem? Even if de­mand did fall, what politi­cian would be bold enough to cut some­thing like health care? Look to the ex­am­ple of ed­u­ca­tion. Did fewer chil­dren in the sys­tem lead to re­duced spend­ing? This is not to say that ed­u­ca­tional spend­ing should have been re­duced (it shouldn’t) but it does say that the idea that a guar­an­tee will re­sult in sav­ings is highly sus­pect.

Per­son­ally, I would very much love to have a sim­ple, all em­brac­ing cure for poverty. But I think we should be di­rect­ing our en­er­gies to the more com­plex set of tasks around eco­nomic devel­op­ment, in­come in­cen­tives, dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits, child­care, so­cial as­sis­tance and sup­port ser­vices.

A ba­sic in­come guar­an­tee would be pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive, would re­sult in a work dis­in­cen­tive and would fail to come to grips with why peo­ple fall be­hind. The sen­ti­ment is good but the prod­uct is in need of a re­think.

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