The BC Expert Panel on Basic Income did not recommend a broad basic income for that province, but did recommend three targeted basic incomes (for people with disabilities, youth aging out of care and renters). Dr. Lindsay Tedds, one of the members of the panel, joins Robbie Brydon and Cynthia Belaskie to discuss what they recommended, why they recommended it and the evidence behind several of their recommendations. Could any province implement a basic income or would it require the federal government? Do asset tests provide a gatekeeping function or just cause people in need to burn through what resources they have? Dr. Tedds tackles these questions and many more.
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What Can We Learn from the BC Basic Income Panel? With Lindsay Tedds
Hi Robbie, what are we talking about?
I’m a nerd. There’s no hiding that. I love talking about income security systems. I’m super excited for our guest.
Tell me more.
You might know that the BC Basic Income Expert Panel released a big report in December 2020 and that panel was David Green, Rhys Kesselman and Lindsay Tedds. We are talking to Lindsay Tedds. She is a Professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary. She is one of, as far as I’m concerned, the most insightful people providing analysis on Canadian policy.
What are we going to talk about?
A lot. She’s talking about the evidence behind income transfer programs, a basic income style program, what they found in their report and why they made some of the choices they made, as well as their top recommendations. If you had to sit down and pick three recommendations, she’s got an answer to that question.
Lindsay Tedds, welcome to the program.
Thank you very much for having me.
You came out with this incredible report. It covers an awful lot of ground. You’ve got 450 pages, 45-50 background papers behind it, something like that. The headline that hits the press is that basic income is not the best answer. We’ve got the opportunity here to get beyond the headline and we’re definitely going to do that, but let’s start with that headline. Why did you recommend that improvements to the existing system are a better choice than instituting a basic income?
This is really tough. I’ve been spending a lot of time explaining that because a lot of people are not following the argument and making sure that they understand the context we were working in. I think that’s very unfortunate. The background is super important because BC is not Ontario. We, as the Basic Income Panel, came into an ongoing conversation. Most poignantly, before we were appointed, there was a huge thirteen-member task force that went around the province for nearly two years. They consulted more than 9,000 people, had thousands of pages of documents and reports consulting on poverty in the province. Through those consultations, this is how BC ended up with a poverty reduction strategy and poverty target set in legislation.
Through those conversations, there were things that came up. Some people – and by no means everybody – but a large minority of people said, “Maybe we need to think about moving to a basic income.” And a large minority of people said, “We need to roll back the changes in the income assistance system that the BC Liberals brought in”. Remember, the BC Liberals were in power for sixteen years and they brought in some pretty crappy changes to the income support system. Liberals in BC are conservative. I think it’s really important for everybody to understand: They’re the conservatives in the province. There were some draconian actions that were taken.
So that’s what we came into, this huge consultation. We were then tasked to say, “Can you answer this question?” We were given all of the documents from that consultation, we met with that panel 3 or 4 times and we also consulted with key groups based on the documents we had to make sure that we understood their perspectives – because everybody thinks we didn’t consult and that’s driving me crazy.
We developed our own framework. David Green, who’s at UBC, led this panel and he is a huge scholar of social justice. So we developed our framework based on social justice criteria with a lens of gender-based analysis, as well. We also were informed, of course, by the cancellation of the Ontario pilot, which happened right around the time that we were appointed. It really took our breath away. That was a huge thing to happen and that really messed around with people’s lives. It reinforced to us to make sure that within social justice we didn’t think just about the recipient side. We also had to think about the side of the people who fund these programs.
That is how we ended up with this philosophy of the Common Bowl from Joseph Gosnell, which talks about how social justice is based on an idea of reciprocity: we both give to the bowl and take to the bowl. We have to make sure that we have a common societal understanding of when we do one action or the other. If people aren’t willing to give to the bowl, we’ve got a problem.
When you then compare the income support system to a basic income, they are on polar opposite ends of the social justice spectrum. Basic income is on the end of autonomy whereas the income support system is on the end of paternalism. To think about taking the system that currently exists and thinking you can immediately move to the other end of the spectrum of autonomy and have it survive an election, a change in government, any crisis that is putting the fiscal framework at risk, as is happening now – these were things that we were very cognizant of.
Instead we ended up thinking about how do we get people to understand a lot of the things that they put in place for the income support system actually don’t do any gatekeeping at all. It’s all about stigma. It’s not about gatekeeping. It doesn’t help people. In fact, it makes it all worse. Let’s start taking away those things that reinforce that stigma that lead to that paternalism. Let’s move it closer to that autonomy idea. Let’s show people that it can work. Let’s start laying the groundwork. If this is where we want to go, these are the kinds of things that we have to start accepting: getting rid of asset tests, earnings exemptions, draconian welfare walls, ongoing surveillance and things like that. In order for this to be stable, you have to demonstrate that this kind of stuff doesn’t lead to fraud.
I’m glad you hopped into a couple of those examples. I was about to ask you what are those things that are useless gatekeeping measures that exist to stigmatize? Did you want to expand on that list?
I think the biggest one is asset tests. One of the analogies a lot of people use is always got to be a gendered issue, the banker’s wife. What if we give money to the banker’s wife? This is a gendered stereotype, but this is the one that comes up a lot. What about a woman who was married to a very wealthy man? She doesn’t work. If you only use an individualized income test, she looks poor and so we’re going to give her money.
What if she’s in an abusive relationship and she has no financial autonomy? This can be her first step in being able to leave that relationship. We have to make sure that we understand, “Does an asset test prevent high-income people from accessing our social programs?” In general, what it actually does is force people who are right on the edge of society to burn down their assets so that they can get the help that they need. Then they end up not being able to cycle out of poverty because they can never build back up their asset base.
Gillian and I are finishing off a paper in this area. There aren’t a lot of papers that have been done on this and everything we have is out of the United States. In all the evidence we have, there is absolutely no evidence that asset tests provide a policing function at all. Rich people don’t just go looking for programs to build up their base and the people who really need them, it ends up trapping them in this cycle of poverty.
Earnings exemptions. The whole point of income assistance is to support people to engage in paid work if they are able to. If they are able to is important because lots of people think that income assistance is a bunch of lazy people. We have this stereotype that these are people that are just too lazy to work. In British Columbia, 92% of people who are on income assistance are in a “not expected to work” category. They are on disability assistance, persons with multiple barriers like addictions or mental health problems, parents to young children under the age of three. There are a variety of different reasons that people aren’t in the “expected to work” category and that’s because employment insurance covers a lot of those [other] people.
The idea of saying that, “If you work, we’re going to claw back all of your benefits,” then says that this person can’t accept work and try to better their lives before we claw back all of their benefits. We want to make sure we get them into stable employment, the right kind of employment and that they have stabilized their base before we start thinking about reducing their benefits. So earnings exemptions are actually really, really important, as well as making sure that we don’t claw back dollar-for-dollar, from a cycle of poverty perspective. You want to make sure that when somebody transitions off of income assistance, it’s forever. Those are two examples.
I’m interested in this idea of policy stability. As you referenced, I was part of the evaluation of the Ontario basic income pilot that got the rug pulled out from under us quite sharply. One of the phrases in your paper is “radical incrementalist”. I’m curious about the counterargument that the safest programs in the Canadian landscape are the big broad ones, Medicare, the OAS, the child benefits. They’re political suicide to touch. The flip argument to the one you made might be that a basic income would be harder to get rid of with a change in government. How would you treat that counterargument?
The programs that are the hardest to touch are the ones that have a base level of argument that comes with it, that is more than poverty reduction. When you think of universal health care, to say that here in 2021, it can’t be touched, I’ll agree with you. In 1973, that wasn’t so true. In fact, it’s been at risk a few times. So to say that some of those programs are really safe, I think it really depends on where you are and what province you’re in and what the fiscal conditions are.
It’s taken us a long time to get to the Canada Child Benefit. A hundred years, actually. Mothers’ pensions, Family Allowance, the Child Tax Credit, to the UCCB, and finally to the Canada Child Benefit. And yes there is a poverty reduction element to it, but it’s fundamentally about horizontal equity within the tax system. It’s about acknowledging the fact that children reduce your ability to pay and so for two like taxpayers – one with children, one without – we should acknowledge the cost of children and rectify that.
It’s certainly true that the child benefit had a very incrementalist approach.
Very incrementalist! For anybody who has studied social programs, the child benefit one is as incremental as you could get. I’m not sure I am going to agree that all of our fundamental programs weren’t approached through radical incrementalism. It takes a lot to get the buy-in to enact these programs.
There’s a big part of our recommendations that talks about the fact that in order to truly enact a basic income that gets to the people that are most important – for us, we were very focused on the depths of poverty. It is really hard to get to those people that are at the deepest depths of poverty and that’s true even with a basic income. We have a whole series of recommendations that are all of the things that you need to do to change the system to be better able to deliver your benefits. We have a lot of benefits. We also go through how, in theory, for a number of different groups of people, we have the ability to lift a number of groups out of poverty, theoretically. But we don’t because we’re not able to deliver these benefits because it’s hard to access these things. You have to do certain things to get them, the biggest one being filing your taxes. About 15% of people every year don’t file their taxes and in that 15% are the most vulnerable people. If we make fundamental changes to our system, big ones being at CRA – like moving to auto file, deemed acceptance, all of these basic changes to our system – we can actually get to a point where we’re auto-delivering all of these benefits. We can move the needle quite a bit to ensure that people are receiving the benefits we have and then we can start going even further, but we’re not even delivering the benefits that we have and that’s super frustrating.
A lot of people say, “If we can get a basic income to 75% of the people, that’s good enough”. That’s not good enough for me because the 25% of the people we’re leaving out are the poorest, the most in need, the people who benefit most from a basic income.“When you compare the income support system to a basic income, they are on polar opposite ends of the social justice spectrum. Basic income is on the end of autonomy whereas the income support system is on the end of paternalism" Click To Tweet
You point out that that’s not in the control of the BC government, but ultimately at the federal level. So there is perhaps a different perspective to be had on this provincially and federally. To what extent do you think that if you did the same exercise in any other province, you would come to roughly the same conclusion with different specific recommendations or might you come up with a different conclusion that says, “Maybe a basic income would work here?” And how does that change at the federal level? Two-part question.
That’s a tough one. In the end, we still have this issue, which I think probably would drive what we would see in most provinces. I’m hesitant about the territories because it’s a fundamentally different Constitution there. In the Constitution, we have the division of powers. The division of powers is such that the provinces have been delegated some of our most vital basic services.
When you look at a provincial budget, in most provinces, 70% to 80% of the budget is in three areas: Health care; K through 12, plus advanced education; and social services. The remaining 20% is strewn across a whole bunch of different areas. When we looked at British Columbia and we looked at what their budget was, most of it is basic services. Very little of it is income support. In fact, the biggest income support is income assistance and it’s not that big of a budget: $2-$3 billion. The rest of it, their whole support system – which is $11-$12 billion – the bulk of it in BC is housing, a lot of housing supports especially for people with developmental disabilities. We’ve got supports for people with disabilities, like wheelchairs and feeding equipment. People might know that we have these sunburst diagrams that look at all of these programs, who delivers them, where they are and how much money we’re spending on each thing. When we went through this wheel of programs, it’s not like we were sitting there going, “Cut that, cut that, cut that.”
In fact, we found almost nothing to cut because people are complex, very different and have different needs. A lot of those programs are there for a particular reason. There are legal supports for women who are escaping intimate partner violence and domestic violence. They don’t have the resources and there’s a whole system of services available to them to help them hold their abuser to account and ensure that they are able to get custody of their kids. Basic income is not going to take away the need for those supports.
People with disabilities are always going to need more support than anybody else and a basic income is not going to even that out. Living with a disability is more costly. If we’re going to give everybody say $20,000 and then expect somebody who needs a specialized wheelchair to then have to pay for that themselves out of that basic income, that’s not a fair system at all. But then it also tells me we still have a system where we have to adjudicate disability. It doesn’t take long before you recreate the system even with a basic income.
If you take the Ontario pilot as an example, they threw out the disability supports entirely, which we, as evaluators, were going to have some stern words about in its implementation. It meant that in the pilot, you didn’t have to consider it a problem because anyone for whom that would be an issue wasn’t going to be in that pilot – it’s a point that Mike Moffett has made. But they did start with a base-level increase in the amount that people with a disability receive, which is very similar to what you’ve proposed.
You’ve effectively created three basic incomes, a basic income for people with persistent disabilities, for youth leaving care and for renters. You’ve got these three targeted basic incomes within this program rather than a broad-based basic income. The bulk of your cost recommendations, the things in your proposal that cost money, five of them are income transfers: The basic incomes for people with disabilities and renters; the earning supplement; the expansion of the Canada workers benefit for BC; and an increase in temporary assistance benefit levels. Those are the five biggies. The sixth is taking extended health benefits out of the social assistance system and making them broadly accessible. That, to me, is the one that cannot be replicated by a basic income.
I was on a Concordia panel and I had to, again, clarify that British Columbia is not other provinces. I had to make sure we understand what the baseline is. British Columbia has PharmaCare. Everybody goes, “What?”
Not universal PharmaCare.
It is means-tested. It is a fairly robust program and I think it’s an important program. Within the income support system, if you’re in the income support system, there’s a fairly robust system of health supports, including dental. Given that I’ve spent a fair amount of money trying to fix my mouth, I’m very sensitive to how important dental care is. In North America, our physical appearance is very important and it’s important to be able to get certain kinds of jobs and move up through the hourly wage spectrum. So access to dental care and a variety of different health supports is actually really important to support people in employment.
It’s also very important to be able to support people to not have to confront the welfare wall. This is what was happening and it’s a no-brainer to me. Do you want to take on a $15/hour job and lose your income assistance? You’re going to have a higher income but you’re going to lose all of your medical supports. If you’re a parent with young kids, this is an important program. We want to make sure that people who want to choose paid work – we’re not forcing anybody to work – are able to do so without any barriers to entry. That’s what all of these things are about.
It’s acknowledging who’s in the best place to be able to do this. Provinces are in the best place to be able to offer robust services, writ large. If we can go back to the question that I didn’t answer, which is about the federal government, when we looked at the programs that the federal government offers, 80% of what they offer is income. They’re the bad boys when it comes to income support. The Canada child benefit, OAS, GIS, veteran supports – that’s who’s got the power to offer income supports to individuals in a way that is not stigmatizing.
In the speech from the throne in the fall, they announced that they were moving forward on the Canada Disability Benefit. This is something that people have been waiting for a long time. People with disabilities deserve societal support to be living above the poverty line and making sure that they have all of these things available to them.
The federal government, though, is not very good at delivering disability supports because they have a very narrow definition of disability. You have the Disability Tax Credit, which is an awful program where CRA is adjudicating disability. CRA should never be adjudicating disability; that is nowhere near who should be adjudicating that. And then you have CPP-D, which is the second-narrowest definition of disability.
Between Alberta AISH and BC Disabilities you have a much broader definition of disabilities. If we look at convincing the federal government that what it wants to do is integrate its disability system into the provincial systems, so that a person with a disability is adjudicated once and then provided with a benefit that lifts them above poverty through a system of basic services and basic income through a relationship with both the federal and provincial governments. Oh boy, that would be nice. When we were thinking about rejigging the disability system within BC, this was also on our mind: How do you pave the way to a better federal benefit that works with the provincial benefit? If the feds moved all on their own, what would happen is exactly what you said happened in Ontario. If everybody moves off of the provincial system, there go all of those services.
I also wanted to talk about the line in your report that says, “The system – built like a house with many renovations undertaken without an overall plan – treats some people without the dignity they deserve, in spite of the best efforts of the people working within the system.” You talk about reforming that system to provide people with more dignity and speaking particularly to the people who are trying to work in that system right now, what do they need to take away? What are the steps you’ve proposed? What are the things they could do, even if they’re not in BC, to drive changes in the system that would allow them to treat people with dignity?
It’s always hard because the people on the front lines are always overworked. They’re always facing cuts. They’re always being given KPIs of how many people they can throughput the system and sometimes even, “How many people can you deny benefits to?” Because fundamentally somewhere in the system – not usually on the front line, by the way – is somebody who thinks that people who are accessing these services are not worthy. A lot of the judgment in the system is informed by racism, colonialism, the patriarchy and so forth.
Our whole system is set to judge people who are facing, have faced and continue to face some pretty horrible situations in their lives. I think we too often think, “When I faced that, I was able to overcome it. What is this person’s problem?” But we all face adversity in a different way.
The 18 to 24-year-old group of people is a really challenging group of people to think about. For the panel, this was where I started to divulge information about myself that I hadn’t in the past. When we talk about 18 to 24-year-olds, you’ve got a bunch of high-income people sitting around talking, thinking about their kids in their basement and how they’re so taken care of, and their tuition is paid for and all of this. There’s David and Rhys thinking life is good.“There is absolutely no evidence that asset tests provide a policing function at all. Rich people don’t go looking for programs to build up their base and the people who need them end up trapped in this cycle of poverty.” Click To Tweet
My parents left me when I was sixteen and still in high school. This wasn’t the life I led. But I had lived a life such that when that happened to me, it actually wasn’t all that surprising. I know this sounds horrible. But different people are different. It wasn’t that big of a deal in my life. Now that I’m a parent, it is much more shocking to me now than it was at the time. I got an apartment, I got a job, I finished high school without any problems other than the principal had no idea what to do with me because I could sign my own notes. I skipped regularly, but I was a smart cookie. I never had problems with my grades or anything like that. I applied for university; I got in. I didn’t have any of the issues that somebody else did have, but I would never look at somebody who was equally abandoned by their parents at that age and struggled and needed more help than I do. In fact, I would say that my example is not the norm and nobody should design the system around me.
But too often that is actually what we do. And you can see it, especially here in Alberta where we have a bunch of people who go, “I worked hard, I overcame,” and “People don’t need a handout, they need a hand up.” We can’t judge how people react because we don’t know what trauma they have had. We already know the cognitive difficulties that people can have when they are under stress, all of these factors. I think there are people in the system – not the frontline workers, it’s the bureaucrats higher up – who are too focused on the fiscal impact and not the impact on these people’s lives. I think we’ve got to get over that.
That’s going to take a long time because racism, colonialism, the patriarchy… In the income support system, we want people to work and some people have chosen sex work and then we tell them that’s not the right kind of work. Let’s try to get some perspective here. I don’t have any magic answer to that. I would say we need more frontline workers. We need boots on the ground, a more supportive system and more patience. We have to stop telling people what are the right ways to live their lives and making sure that we are there to point them in the direction, if you want, these are your supports. When somebody is ready for help, they will opt for those supports.
From the systems lens of what you brought to the table, what are the policy changes that allowed that to happen?
Since the NDP took over and particularly during the pandemic, we’re starting to put more boots on the ground. We did have recommendations about boots on the ground. We talked about using the supports of NGOs to help deliver programs, to have more face-to-face and not the place we were with the Liberals, i.e., go to www.IncomeSupportBC.ca and fill out your 25-page form on the internet. You need to have more of those one-on-one supports. When we were looking at youth aging out of care, we talked about wraparound supports. It wasn’t just about a basic income for that 18 to 24-year-old period. It was also that they need a parent in some way, shape or form – if they want, again, you can’t force that. But it doesn’t have to be a government. It can be Big Brothers, Big Sisters, but they need more support.
Let’s pivot a little bit and talk about evidence, since we call this The Best Evidence Podcast, after all. We’re particularly interested in the relationship between income and health. Can you tell me a little bit about the different ways that we see people’s lives being improved – statistically – when they get additional resources, income or similar benefits?
There are a lot of studies that have been done on this and it’s convincing evidence. It can be as fundamental as fewer preterm births, higher birth weights that have long-term benefits in those children’s lives. We see better mental health. We see less consumption of alcohol, cannabis, tobacco, better consumption of high-quality foods. Those are the big ones. Mental health, emotional disorders, cognitive load is reduced. The more resources you have, the cognitive stress that you are under, which has huge benefits, not only short-term but also long-term. I don’t know whether or not we quoted this one in here, but there was a recent study that showed particularly men that faced a negative income shock early in their lives, in their 20s, that negative income shock had mental health implications well into their 40s and 50s.
I’ll ask you one last question, which is truly an unfair question. You made 65 recommendations to build a more just society in BC and you had these lists of principles that summarized that. If you had to choose, if you were sitting down with a decision-maker who says, “I’m going to implement the top three. You tell me what the top three are,” what would they be? I know the answer to this because I’ve done it. The youth aging out of care, disability supports and pulling the health supports out of welfare so that everybody can access them, particularly dental.
That was the quickest simplest answer to the most ridiculous question that I could possibly have expected.
When you do this work, you have to be ready for that question because that’s exactly what the government is going to ask you, “Lindsay, David and Rhys, there are 66 recommendations here. You know we can’t do this all in one year. What would you recommend we do immediately?” We actually all came up with those three independently, all at the same time. It was good that we were all on the same page.Top three recommendations from the BC Basic Income Panel: support for youth aging out of care, disability supports and pulling health supports (especially dental) out of welfare so that everybody can access them. Click To Tweet
I think Lindsay Tedds is my new favorite person. Why didn’t you invite me to this party, Robbie?
It’s true. I think the two of you would get along quite well.
It was really something of a project from the sounds of it. What did you make of it?
I’ve been watching this debate about the concept of a basic income and the evidence behind it for the last 10-plus years. I thought the BC report was well thought out. They did an excellent job of highlighting what decisions you have to make if you’re going to design a basic income, what the trade-offs are, all of those things you have to think about. I strongly agree with their conclusion that this would be hard for a province to do without the feds involved, but their conclusion is not the only one available from that evidence. I think it’s going to be interesting to take a look at it.
That leads us to our next guest, who is Evelyn Forget. She’s looked extensively at the evidence and has come to some different conclusions. Don’t miss that conversation the next time on the show.
About Lindsay Tedds
My primary research and teaching area is applied economic research and policy analysis, with a particular focus on tax policy. I have also held several posts with the Government of Canada in Ottawa in the areas of public economics and policy implementation. I can be reached at email@example.com. You can also follow me on Twitter: @LindsayTedds