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Topics: Justice | Opinion

Universal basic income could leave some Canadians behind

Thinking of UBI as an individualized remedy risks continued inequality

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In late April, as the COVID-19 crisis wore mercilessly on, bishops from the Anglican and Evangelical Lutheran Churches in Canada wrote a surprising open letter to the prime minister in which they expressed with one voice that Canada needs guaranteed basic income for all. More than 40 bishops from these churches signed the letter, and their efforts represent an earnest response to what is a growing crisis within Canada at this time.

COVID-19 has revealed the necessity of a minimum income. Those whose lives were already precarious have experienced greater risk due to the illness, increased vulnerability to violence, and in many cases, economic ruin. But while we did not wish to interrogate universal basic income (UBI) as a policy, we did wish to raise questions about the way in which it has been configured in neoliberal capitalism: that is, as an individualized remedy to growing economic need as the gap between rich and poor expands.

One of neoliberalism’s chief tenets is that individuals are responsible for the acquisition of the “good life” through private selection of marketized “choices.” In the letter, the bishops speak of the savings that UBI will represent to the public purse: “We encourage you to see the enormous economic and social value that Universal Basic Income provides: from savings in our health care and correctional systems, to a strengthened opportunity for individuals to access child care, transportation, food, refugee and immigration aid, housing, and particularly the self-determination and health for Indigenous people.”

What is not raised here is the accessibility and nature of these goods and services. Are they universally accessible to all Canadians? Clearly health care, affordable food, education and decent housing are far less available to Indigenous persons on reserves than they are to others in Canada, no matter how generous the UBI. In this case, basic income masquerades as a universal benefit while keeping the fundamental inequities of Canadian society concealed.

Another view on this topic: Universal basic income could change more than how we work

One of the most concerning suggestions in the bishops’ letter is that Indigenous self-determination will be enhanced through personal access to financial security. In viewing self-determination as a private good, the bishops neglect that self-determination, as codified by the United Nation Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), is the collective “right [to] freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” Self-determination can never be identified with programs of the nation state which offer individual rewards, no matter how personally beneficial these may be.

We wonder if the time has come to build capacity as churches to stage a more decisive theological intervention. A prime example of such collective action is the ongoing resistance of various Indigenous groups in Canada. Most recently, the Wet’suwet’en people have attempted to resist pipeline development across their territories. These ongoing sites of Indigenous resurgence—that resist both state and corporate interest—serve as alternative politics in which the church would do well to serve as an ally.

In this case, basic income masquerades as a universal benefit while keeping the fundamental inequities of Canadian society concealed.

We call upon Christians to name core supports, programs and values and commit to these as we seek to split wealth more equally. Such work is in keeping with a long and diverse history of socialist projects which are under continual assault in this country in a climate of austerity. The refusal to privatize common goods like health care, education, housing, transportation and land itself is one of the most onerous political tasks currently facing the church. It is also one that is easily neglected by politicians in an era when Indigenous and religious groups —and those other communities that seek to protect social services and public goods —become ever more marginalized in the public sphere.

Key to these forms of resistance, we believe, is a spirituality that resists the monetization and the hyper-individualism of contemporary life. Key also is the memory and worship of the one who calls us to serve always “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40) — the vulnerable among us.

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Jane Barter is a professor of religion and culture at the University of Winnipeg and an Anglican priest in the Diocese of Rupert’s Land. David Driedger is an independent scholar and associate minister at First Mennonite Church in Winnipeg. They are both founding members of a Christian socialist group in Winnipeg.


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