Creating Conversation: It’s past time for a Guaranteed Livable Income

Barry Morris has been advocating for a GLI for decades; he believes the concept is just and will strengthen Canada.

This weekly editorial gives opportunity for people to speak about issues they believe are vital for the church to respond to. We will also ask someone – in this case Chris Sundby – to respond to the article, in part to model healthy conversation.

One of the goals of this weekly article is to spark dialogue – and action. We invite you to join the dialogue either here on Church for Vancouver or on the CityGate Vancouver website.

We also invite you to use the article as a discussion starter with your church small group, your church staff, your friends or your neighbours. Feel free to repost the article on your own social media. Thanks for participating in the conversation!

On April 8 number of us gathered outside of our MP’s office, in response to the federal Liberal and NDP parties’ decision to repeatedly delay and defer instituting a Guaranteed Livable Income (GLI).

Our vigil was one of over 50 such vigils across Canada among people who strongly believe that establishing a GLI is a key way in which we can take up the commandment to love our neighbour as ourself.

Just as Old Age Assistance took a long stretch of lobbying and advocacy before it was implemented, so too has the road towards acceptance of GLI been lengthy. But I and others do not give up, because we believe that GLI is a policy that can strengthen our country.

Let me offer reasons why I believe that churches should be at the forefront of advocating for this policy as well as some of the questions or reservations that I often hear regarding GLI

What is a Guaranteed Income?

One version is a demogrant, another a refundable tax credit (RTC). Eligibility for either type of benefit is not conditional upon employment or assets but can be conditional upon age or family or citizenship status.

A demogrant is a fixed amount of income paid to all families or individuals, regardless of their income level. The amount is not clawed back or reduced by the amount of income the family or individual has. Historical examples are the Family Allowance and Old Age Assistance benefits.

A Refundable Tax Credit (RTC) provides families or individuals with no other income a maximum benefit – the Guarantee – which is then reduced as the family’s or individual’s other sources of income increase. Clawback rates vary.

An example of an RTC is the Old Age Security (OAS) benefit. All seniors with incomes up to $77,580 receive the full annual value of the OAS benefit ($7,370). For those with higher incomes, the benefit is reduced at the rate of 15 percent, such that those with incomes greater than $126,713 get no OAS benefits.

Does Canada already have Guaranteed Income Programs?

The federal government offers three guaranteed income programs – two for seniors and one for children. The two seniors’ programs are Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement for low income seniors. The Canada Child Benefit provides a benefit to all children under 18 years of age.

On December 8, 2020, the PEI legislature accepted the final report of its Special Committee on Poverty to develop and implement a Basic Income Program. It will undertake talks with the federal government to assist with its funding.

It is worth noting that the single non-elderly adult group faces the highest rate and greatest depth of poverty of all demographic groups.

What is a Livable Income?

Canada’s official poverty line is the Market Basket Measure (MBM). It prices a basket of goods and services deemed to provide a “modest, basic standard of living.” That basket is then priced annually by Statistics Canada for 53 different regions in the country that include all provinces except the territories and First Nations communities.

A national GLI would use as its Guarantee the population weighted average value of the 53 different MBM thresholds. For 2019, that national weighted average MBM for a four-person family would be $44,860. For a single adult, the average MBM threshold would be $22,430. For two, three, five and six person households, the national MBM thresholds would be $31,720, $38,850, $50,155 and $54,942, respectively.

How much would it cost to provide a Guaranteed Livable Income to all Canadians?

It depends on how it is designed. The four key components in the construction of a GLI, designed as a refundable tax credit, are:

  • the size of the Guarantee;
  • the rate at which that Guarantee is clawed back against other income (Benefit Reduction Rate or BRR);
  • the definition of the income used to claw back the value of the Guarantee; and
  • the demographic unit used to calculate the value of the GLI.

A shorter answer: it costs from $44 – $88+ billion, depending on levels and recovered funds.

Where does the money come from to pay for a GLI?

There are a variety of sources available to the federal and provincial governments to pay for a national GLI, including:

  • Cancellation of (some) existing social programs;
  • Closure of tax loopholes/expenditures;
  • Increases in personal and corporate income taxes;
  • Removal of non-refundable tax credits;
  • Imposition of new taxes;

The net effect of using a broad band of revenue sources are several including the consolidation of multiple federal and provincial income transfer programs into one and reliance on all Canadians to contribute to the cost but on a more progressive basis with the wealthier contributing more.

What is the effect of a GLI on people’s willingness to work?

Mincome (the Manitoba Basic Annual Income Experiment in the 1970s) found that male heads worked one percent fewer hours, secondary earners worked three percent fewer hours and female heads worked seven percent fewer hours. Similar findings via a recent Ontario (though cancelled) pilot.

A federal/provincial/territorial evaluation of the National Child Benefit program that started in the late 1990s found that the female spouse’s labour force participation also declined with the receipt of the child benefit but they used the extra hours for home-related work such as child-rearing.

What other effects does a GLI have on the lives of recipients?

The public health journal, Lancet Public Health[1], reviewed the range of social and health effects of a range of guaranteed income programs on recipients’ lives. They include:

  • Teens more likely to remain in and complete high school;
  • Reduction in low birth weight babies and higher birth weights associated with higher benefits;
  •  Lower probability of child obesity at age three;
  • Less use of hospitals due mainly to fewer accidents or injuries and mental health diagnoses;
  • Reduction in young adult obesity.
  • Reductions in criminal activity.

Further thoughts:

What is the anticipated political resistance and/or stone-walling from the political-economic powers to (actually!) adopt and implement a GLI?

Grace MacInnis noted in her book about her father, J.S. Woodsworth: A Man to Remember, how the old age pensions arose – with concerns that the family (if intact) of a senior would be absolved of responsibilities to care for their older relative due to government assistance and/or the recipient would be rendered lazy in quick order, and even blameworthy for lack of thrift. The House of Commons/Senate felt that, if passed, the people would rebel and reject it outright.

What moral and/or theological justification is there for a livable income, that is universal, guaranteed and annual?

Biblical prophets consistently issue mandates for justice (Micah 6:8, Amos 5:24), demanding equality and fair treatment (including the foreigner, even enemy), and using a people’s abundance for purposes of redressing inequalities and deprivations (II Corinthians 8:13-14).

Jesus’ teachings exemplify God’s concern for living wages or support (Matthew 20:1-16). Social ethics, the regulative principles of justice-making and keeping, summon the dynamic and priority applications of equality, liberty, forbearance, and (fair) order.

Also, vigilance. During the pandemic, government authorities have employed income measures to assist people threatened and endangered. It proved it possible to act quickly, caringly and constructively. But such measures are fragile, subject to withdrawal at the signs of returning to the ‘old norms’ and exempting the rich from redistributing their recent and accumulated windfalls via progressive taxes.

Could the church influence a movement to adopt a GLI policy? 

First, the church’s history is important, including its social gospel role of supporting the introduction of Old Age pensions and then, later, GIS (Guaranteed Income Supplement) programs.

Second, as a faith community of seniors, with its fragility and yet accumulated wisdom and readiness, one actively hopes for prophetic actions to advocate the redress of inequalities.

If – when – the government institutes a GLI what are the chances of it being withdrawn when inconvenient or through catering to special interests?

A watchful, vigilant caveat is necessary: what can be given can be taken away. It is vital that the moves for advocating a GLI be broad-based. We practice hope that – as with the origins of the 1920s Old Age Pensions – our democratic and prophetic witness safeguards an enduring adequate / livable income level and guarantee.

How essential is it that poor people have meaningful input, from beginning to implementation to reviews?

The poor must be involved – naming what is needed, what plans and programs are enacted and in the actual implementation and review. With many poor people’s organizations eclipsed or in dormancy, this would be anxiously and insufficiently left in the hands, at best it seems, of advocates (though one hopes for conscientious bureaucrats).

What reservations/criticisms from our faith communities?

Introducing GLI might threaten the current batches of charity or relief programs – daily, occasional, yearly – that give us a sense of being ‘useful’ even, alas, allowing us to interpret charity as justice (redistribution of resources) even if inadequate and non-guaranteed.

Commendable is St. Augustine’s dictum: Charity is no substitute for justice withheld. Dag Hammarskjöld steadfastly expressed: No peace (with justice) unless for all; no rest until all fulfilled (Markings, 35).

I got into all this GLI advocacy decades ago; it is no sprint to a finish line. Rather it is a marathon of marathons.

I have advocated for the GLI for more than two generations, working with the United Church of Canada (UCC) 1970s Poverty Task Force. We hoped this contributed to the collective “mind of the church, knowing that an organized level of grass-roots support was sorely needed. I have since been a thankful part of an advocacy network chiefly within the UCC and drawing on research and advocacy materials from ecumenical churches.

[1] Marcia Gibson, PhD, Wendy Hearty, MPH, and Peter Craig, PhD, “The Public Health Effects of Interventions Similar to Basic Income: A Scoping Review,” The Lancet Public Health 5, Issue 3 March 01, 2020, accessed May 03, 2021. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpub/article/PIIS2468-2667(20)30005-0/fulltext )

Submitted to Continuing Conversations via Tim Dickau, by Barry Morris and with adapted material of Harvey Stevens.

Barry Morris is a United Church minister who has served at the Longhouse Council of Native Ministry  in east Vancouver for 30 years. He is the author of A Faithful Public-Prophetic Witness.

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Response to ‘It’s past time for a Guaranteed Livable Income’

Chris Sundby

In a letter dated August 3, 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer sketched an outline for a book he never wrote. The outline concludes with a description of a ‘church for others’ – a consistent theme throughout Bonhoeffer’s theology.

He wrote,

The church is church only when it is there for others. As a first step it must give away all its property to those in need. The clergy must live solely on the freewill offerings of the congregations and perhaps be engaged in some secular vocation.

The church must participate in the worldly tasks of life in the community – not dominating but helping and serving. It must tell people in every calling what a life with Christ is, what it means ‘to be there for others.’1

This “helping and serving” and “being there for others” informs my short response to Barry Morris’ outline for Christian support of a Guaranteed Livable Income (GLI). Pairing this understanding with the economic practice of none-going-with-need as described in Acts 2 and 4 provides further Christian support for enacting a GLI as a logical continuation of Christian praxis.

In the earliest Christian community, according to Acts, no one went with need as those who had more shared with those who had less. Crucially, as well, in Acts 4 they are all “of one heart and soul.”2 Filled with the Spirit, they sold their property and possessions for the communal good, as all were together and equal in Christ.

Later, in the middle of the first century, Paul went to Jerusalem after 14 years away and met with James, Peter and John. Paul explained to them the gospel he was presenting to the Gentiles to gain their approval. After coming to an agreement, as he left “they asked only one thing, that we remember the poor,” which Paul “was eager to do.”3

After this, Paul wrote to, and collected money from, other communities for the poor in Jerusalem.4 Thus from the earliest moments of the Christian community – amidst Jew/Gentile debates – the concern to care for the poor remained central and unifying.

Centuries later, early Christian leaders such as John Chrysostom (“remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor”) and Basil of Caesarea (“the bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear mouldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes”), argued that the material deprivation of the poor was because of accumulation instead of gift.

Regarding enacting a GLI, Christians should support this as a logical outworking of the above comments. Bonhoeffer, the Acts community, Paul in Jerusalem, Chrysostom and Basil – all recognized the core concern for none-going-with-need as an important Christian praxis.

We are a church for others, and we should prefigure this social reality within the church community and express it to the wider society.

The ongoing housing crisis in the city and the ongoing opioid/fentanyl crisis – with 2020 being the worst year for overdose deaths on record – should be central concerns for the church community in Vancouver.

One of the main concerns I often hear is that legislating ‘charity’ is not a Christian concern, instead it is about individual acts. I am sympathetic to this point, as I do not think outsourcing concern for the poor to the state is what Christian obedience looks like.

Instead, the church community should embody the practice of none-going-with-need and from this ‘internal’ practice, practical legislative considerations are drawn – GLI being one such practical consideration, as Morris outlines well.

In 1942, Bonhoeffer wrote from prison about the importance of seeing “the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed and reviled, in short from the perspective of the suffering.”5

From this perspective, learned within the church community as we encounter those-going-without and unify to meet each other’s needs, a GLI becomes a lot more commonsensical.

1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. John W. de Gruchy, trans. Isabel Best et al., Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 8 ( Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 503.
2 Similarly repeated in Acts 4:32-35, “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (NRSV)
3 Galatians 2:10 (NRSV).
4 1 Corinthians 16:1–4; 2 Corinthians 8:1–9:15; Romans 15:25–31.
5 Bonhoeffer, DBWE 8, 52.

Chris Sundby works at Jacob’s Well in the Downtown Eastside and lives nearby in community. He is currently studying at Regent College pursuing a Master of Arts in Theology. He has recently begun research for a thesis on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and ethics.

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3 comments for “Creating Conversation: It’s past time for a Guaranteed Livable Income

  1. I welcome the opportunity to express a bit of the rationale for why advocacy for a Guaranteed Livable Income is part and parcel of a Christian and church response to poverty and the inequalities and indignities that underlie.

    By the way, those 50-plus public vigils of April 8 were primarily via the United Church of Canada, albeit other faith communions have expressed support over the years (Anglicans, Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Quakers, etc.).

    Meanwhile, I appreciate the thoughtfulness of Chris Sundby’s response and adding valuable insights, with resources, especially biblical and via Bonhoeffer. I look forward to his forthcoming work on Bonhoeffer – such a formidable, enduring mentor and exemplar for us all (as one of his teachers, Reinhold Niebuhr, has been for me).

    However, it remains to be seen whether the organized Christian faith, that is the church, is really willing enough, if indeed numerically strong enough, and for the long haul of societal life, to practice some kind and level of economic well-being and livability – and then somehow eventually commend that way of living, even directly, to the powers that be, among which Christians inevitably reside, work, contribute and invest.

    Not on our own would we carry advocacy weight. At best, we sin boldly in our attempts to love God and neighbour. We also confess and wipe off the blood to try yet again. Just as the church (but not all), here and there, in the 1920s supported the call for a level of economic security for older persons, it is thus time to extend that love-rooted and justice-orientated advocacy for others and with others, if not all.

    Acting for the general interests of society as a whole is in the “self-interest” or sphere of mutuality of Christians, individually and collectively. Yes?

    In shalom,
    … Barry

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