What could a basic income pilot program in BC look like?

In early July, the BC NDP minority government — supported by a confidence and supply agreement with the BC Greens — assembled a three-person research committee to explore implementing a basic income pilot program. One month into the initiative, committee Chair and UBC’s economics professor David Green chatted with The Ubyssey about the research process and the potential application for students.

A basic income usually refers to a stipend that is given unconditionally to all eligible residents.

But this simple concept has many different models. For instance, while some advocate for basic income in lieu of other social welfare programs, others want it to accompany those that are already in place.

“The first of the options ... costs a lot less — in fact that’s part of the point — but almost certainly leaves vulnerable populations worse off,” Green explained.

“On the other hand, the more expensive option, I’ve seen costing versions of that [which says] we have to increase taxes by 40 per cent to afford the kind of levels that were in the basic income experiment in Ontario, without taking down anything else at the same time.”

The committee plans to analyze the models using tax data to answer questions like “who would lose services and how much they would lose under different schemes.”

It will also commission “a pretty big set of studies” to better understand how to deliver a basic income program to populations that present a data gap, such as vulnerable communities in the Downtown Eastside.

Where do students fit in?

One “fairly standard” model for students is to have reduced benefits for children, and increased benefits once they become an adult.

“If that kind of policy were put in place, people like UBC students at age 18 would start receiving bigger checks in the mail or directly into their bank account, regardless of whether they would be living at home or regardless of what they were doing in terms of schooling,” said Green.

The committee is also interested in looking at alternative models, including one where the recipients would receive more money if they are in school and less if they are not.

One of the active questions is whether government would cut back on financial support for students if basic income were introduced. According to Green, an alternative solution could be income-contingent loans, where repayment is dependent on the borrower’s “income, family size and total amount borrowed.”

“Part of what we want to think about is [whether] basic income a better way for supporting students and getting people into education, or is it better to go to something more like [income-contingent] loans,” he said.

Students themselves have mixed opinions about a potential basic income program in BC.

“UBI sounds awesome in theory,” wrote Reddit user muffinjello.

“Not only would it help those struggling in society, but it could also help students struggling with tuition/food/whatever, leaving them more time to focus on studying … That being said, how affordable will it be, and will it require spending cuts (or prevent spending increases) outside welfare sector?”

Reddit user chengt1 said that they are “not wholly convinced.”

“What’s to prevent people from staying at home and making memes all day?” they wrote. “Human nature is lazy unless there’s external pressure to push individuals to work.”

“A more gradual approach”

Currently, the three-person committee is expanding the team and preparing to present the first draft of their research in December 2019. The final draft won’t be due until March 2020.

“The nice thing is that the government’s been patient about this,” said Green. “Oftentimes things are run and they give you like three months to tell them how to rearrange one of the biggest parts of a transfer system.”

Moving forward, Green outlined the team’s major challenges as accessibility and affordability. For example, how would BC residents view the program’s potential cost in relations to its potential benefits, such as “less stress, fewer health problems” and higher ability to “refuse crappy jobs.”

“One is how do you make sure you get services to everybody when for some people, just giving them money is not going to be sufficient,” he said.

“And the second is the cost — how much are citizens willing to pay to implement this … Part of our goal is to try to decide how much benefit there is on both sides, the costs and the benefits.”

He also noted that the recent cancellation of the Ontario basic income pilot — which was launched in April 2017 under the Liberals but scrapped following the election of the Conservative government — will not alter the committee’s work.

“One of the things that I think is fairly widely known about the Ontario pilot is that it was fairly rushed into being, and because of that I think there was some concerns about the details of it,” he said.

“And I think BC took a look at that and said that’s really expensive, so we’ve got to take a more gradual approach and get it right.”

This article has been updated to clarify the relationship between the BC NDP and BC Greens.