Basic Income: An idea whose time has come

The Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit comes to an end in a few weeks, putting many Canadians in a state of anxiety and insecurity about how they will pay for basics such as food, housing and transportation.

Rather than moving back to the Employment Insurance program fraught with problems, the Government of Canada has the opportunity to move forward towards an income support program that reaches everyone in need and lets people live their lives with dignity.

Income and wealth are known to be strongly associated with health.  People with lower income suffer from mental and physical illnesses at higher rates than those with higher socioeconomic status.  They are at higher risk of developing diabetes, experiencing chronic stress and even dying earlier than their wealthier counterparts. Poverty also affects a person’s ability to access education, employment, safe housing and nutritious food.  

Unfortunately, current income support programs do not provide adequate funds for people to lead a healthy and dignified life.  They are restrictive in their eligibility criteria, leaving many people in need without support.  Current programs trap people in poverty by requiring them to deplete savings and other resources before being able to access social assistance.

The idea of a basic income, also known as minimum income or guaranteed income, has been around since the 1960s.  It refers to unconditional payments from governments to individuals regardless of employment status.  Some basic income models are contingent upon need while others are universal, providing a basic amount to every individual.   Canada has examples of both for some populations:  the Canada Child Benefit which has lifted hundreds of thousands of families out of poverty is income-tested, but old age security payments are universal for Canadian residents aged 65 or greater.

We all deserve to live with dignity and basic income

can help achieve this.

Basic income pilot projects conducted in Manitoba in the 1970s, and more recently in Ontario, have shown the benefits of this approach to poverty reduction. In Manitoba, the MINCOME project decreased the high school drop-out rate and reduced hospitalizations for accidents, injuries and mental health problems.  Participants in the Ontario pilot project reported fewer visits to the emergency room, increased physical and mental well-being and less use of alcohol and tobacco.

Many argue that providing a basic income reduces incentive to work.  This was not the case in the Ontario basic income project where 83% of the participants continued working and, of those who stopped, nearly half went back to school or university to upgrade their skills and increase their employability.

It may seem daunting or even impossible to use public funds to finance basic income for Canadians.  But experts have crunched the numbers and shown that Canada can indeed afford a basic income program.  Rolling current income support programs such as employment insurance, child benefits and senior payments into one basic income program will provide access to these existing financial resources and reduce administrative costs.  In addition, shifting resources from refundable and non-refundable tax credits into basic income and modifying the current taxation system to make it fairer, will provide sufficient funds to pay for Canada’s basic income program.

Reducing income inequities benefits rich and poor alike: more equal societies have less mental illness, fewer crimes, less substance use and more trust among strangers.  The current global pandemic has shown us that even those who had good jobs or healthy businesses can have our financial security threatened severely and unexpectedly.  Having a robust social safety net that provides the necessities for a healthy life and is respectful of who we are is more important now than ever before.  We all deserve to live with dignity and basic income can help achieve this.

Vamini Selvanandan© 2020. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license. This article was originally published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on September 17, 2020. Photo credit: Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Further reading:

Impact of COVID-19 on children

Seniors are at highest risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19 infection but children may suffer effects from the pandemic over an entire lifetime.

The direct impact of COVID-19 on children is usually asymptomatic or mild infection with only rare hospitalization or ICU admission.   But, the impact of school closures, economic shutdowns and social disruption on the health and well-being of children are substantial and may be long-lasting.

School closures have had a big impact on children and their families.  The switch to on-line learning likely affected school performance, particularly for children who may not have had access to computers, internet connections or parents able to support home learning. 

Some educational experts predict a “COVID-slide” of up to 50% in mathematics and 30% in reading skills from grade level by the time children return to school in the fall.  They also warn of an increase in high school dropouts if teenagers are not engaged by distance-learning opportunities. These losses can affect lifetime earning potential and economic productivity for today’s children.

Schools are not only places where children receive education but also where many children receive nutritious meals, have a safe place to play outside and receive key public health services such as immunizations, dental care and mental health services.  

We all have a part to play in making sure that this generation of children has every opportunity to reach their full potential.

Optimal childhood development requires social interaction, play and physical activity particularly in the early childhood years.  Daycare and pre-school closures during the early months of the pandemic limited access to early childhood education for many children.  

The economic slowdown and job losses have increased the risk of childhood poverty, food insecurity and precarious housing.  Driven by isolation, anxiety and a higher risk of witnessing or experiencing abuse in the home, children have also been turning to helplines and counseling services for help in higher numbers since the onset of the pandemic.

Given the overwhelming benefits of school for children’s short-term and long-term well-being, the Alberta government has announced its plan to re-open schools this fall for classroom learning.  I applaud the province for recognizing the needs of children during the pandemic and the importance of school in their development and success as adults. 

Alberta Health has provided safety guidelines and school divisions are developing protocols to comply with physical distancing, enhanced cleaning and masking to keep students, staff and the community safe.   There are robust plans in place to test, isolate and trace contacts should outbreaks occur at school.  Some school divisions are also offering at-home learning options that may be appropriate for children with serious underlying medical conditions.  

As parents, educators and community members, we can all support a safe return to school.  Parents can continue to reinforce proper hand hygiene, physical distancing and mask use with their children and keep them at home when sick. 

Educators can follow the guidelines for COVID-19 safety set out by public health agencies and reinstate vital services that children receive through schools such as mental health support.  They can ensure that children who were disadvantaged during home learning are given the extra support they need to catch up to grade level. 

Community members have to do their part in keeping schools open by following measures to keep infections rates low. 

Governments have the responsibility to make sure that children do not fall into poverty as a result of parents losing jobs or income.  Guaranteed income support will ensure that children have access to nutritious food, safe housing and resources for learning. 

Governments also need to bridge the digital divide by providing access to affordable, high speed internet services for children, particularly those living on indigenous reserves and in other rural and remote areas.

Governments need to restore supports for special needs and disabled children both in the home and in schools to full capacity and have contingency plans to avoid disruption if there is a second wave of COVID-19 infections.

COVID-19 threatens to leave a scar on a whole generation of children unless we recognize their unique needs and make sure that we balance our economic, social and health priorities with children in mind.  We all have a part to play in making sure that this generation of children has every opportunity to reach their full potential.  We know that it takes a village to raise a child. 

Vamini Selvanandan© 2020. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license. This article was originally published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on August 20, 2020. Photo credit: Pixabay on Pexels.com

Further reading:

Public policy determines health and well-being

If you have read my previous commentaries, you may have found yourself wondering why a medical doctor would write about public policy.

In the first twenty years of my career, I worked in clinics, emergency rooms and intensive care units.  Sometimes, it seemed that no matter how hard I worked or how much I cared for my patients, I was spinning my wheels.  Some problems my patients faced were simply not resolvable with the tools and knowledge I had as a medical doctor.

This is not surprising because only twenty-five percent of health outcomes are determined by the health care system consisting of hospitals, clinics, doctors and nurses.  The remainder is shaped by public policies adopted by the society in which we live – policies related to employment, housing, education, etc.  Collectively known as the social determinants of health, the conditions in which people live, work and play influence health to a far greater degree than diagnosis and treatment by a health care professional.

An eighteenth-century physician by the name of Rudolf Virchow said, “Medicine is a social science, and politics nothing but medicine at a larger scale.”  He believed that physicians were obligated to expose social problems and contribute to solving them by entering political life.  Virchow acted on his belief by becoming a member of the Municipal Council of Berlin.  He was instrumental in bringing about water and sanitation improvements in the city along with other civic reforms.

Governments at all levels are unduly influenced by business interests at the expense of public health and well-being.

In more recent times, the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion underscores the importance of healthy public policy in achieving health for all.  It calls on public health professionals to make elected officials aware of their responsibility in creating and maintaining health and the consequences of their decisions on the health of their electorate.  

Policy is often made on the basis of political ideology or under the influence of powerful business lobbies that represent major corporations.  In Canada, like in the United States, we place the marketplace as the primary institution of society; governments at all levels are unduly influenced by business interests at the expense of public health and well-being.  

But there is a better way to create public policy.  Social scientists and researchers analyze and identify policies that are effective in achieving public goods such as health, equality and security.  Governments at all levels can improve the use of data and research findings to inform their policy decisions in the same way as doctors use evidence from clinical trials to prescribe effective treatments. 

Politicians need to fulfill their responsibility to the people they serve by intentional selection of policies that work together to promote health.  They need to choose policies that have proportionately more benefits for those with greater needs.  Creating healthy public policy is at heart a non-partisan activity, based on evidence, a sense of fairness and a long-term view.

Community members support healthy public policies when they inform themselves about important issues in their community and about policy options that are known to favour health and well-being.  They need to engage in conversations with fellow citizens and elected officials about local problems and solutions that promote public over corporate interests.  

When it comes down to it, politicians and community members have far more control over the health of populations than do health care professionals.  This is worth remembering next time you find yourself at the ballot box.

Vamini Selvanandan© 2020. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license. This article was originally published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on July 16, 2020. Photo credit: Deepak Digwal on Pexels.com

Further reading:

A new vision for our towns and cities

Our small mountain towns are joining the ranks of world-class cities in pedestrianizing streets in the downtown core.  The Towns of Banff and Canmore are mirroring actions in big cities like Paris, New York and Milan to make more space on downtown streets for people to maintain social distance while enjoying the commercial and recreational activities that our towns have to offer.

Whether this should be a short-term reaction to an immediate problem or an enduring solution towards addressing deep-rooted challenges in our towns is worth considering.

Across the world, measures to control the COVID-19 pandemic have yielded inadvertent but welcome environmental benefits:  cleaner air, decreased carbon dioxide emissions, decreased pressures on wildlife.  People and policymakers have seen what their cities can look like without traffic congestion and air pollution.  Liking what they are seeing, and feeling that it was a state worth preserving, they are taking bold action now. 

Milan has accelerated its Strade Aperte (Open Streets) plan by a decade from 2030 to 2020 to transform 35km of inner-city streets, prioritizing pedestrian and cyclists over motor vehicles. Likewise, Paris is reserving 30 streets and 50km of car lanes for pedestrians and cyclists, respectively, and Mayor Hidalgo has predicted that some of these changes could become permanent.  

In Canada, several large cities are seizing the window of opportunity presented by post-COVID-19 recovery to accelerate changes to make cities more sustainable, equitable and livable.  The 2020 Declaration for Resilience in Cities, signed by Mayors and Chief City Planners from Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Victoria among others, calls for responsible use of land, decarbonization of transportation systems and sustainability in built and natural environments. 

Let’s demonstrate that when our house is on fire, we can and will act quickly, decisively and effectively. 

In the Bow Valley we do not have big cities with big city problems.  However, we have small towns with significant visitation that gives rise to traffic congestion, parking problems, and reduced enjoyment for visitors and locals alike. 

What can we learn from the experience of other urban centres who experience similar problems? 

Reducing vehicle dominance and replacing car-oriented urban spaces with people-oriented spaces have economic, social, cultural and environmental benefits.  Bars, restaurants, retailers and artists all benefit from the increased foot traffic, liveliness and sociability of pedestrianized spaces.   

Our towns also have good intentions for environmental sustainability and written plans for decarbonization, waste diversion and ecosystem preservation. Dates for achieving key targets have been set out to 2050. 

But what we saw in the COVID-19 crisis is that when we are faced with a potentially devastating public health emergency, we can act swiftly and collaboratively in days to weeks to make sure people’s health, lives and livelihoods are protected.  Why don’t we leverage this success to treat climate change like the public health emergency it is? Let’s demonstrate that when our house is on fire, we can and will act quickly, decisively and effectively. 

Finally, we need to reinvent our towns so they do not perpetuate the inequities that currently exist. Built environments such as sidewalks, public buildings and parks need to be accessible to all residents throughout their life.  Children, seniors and people with different physical abilities should feel safe moving about towns during winter and summer. 

Decent, affordable housing is needed to create mixed-income neighbourhoods that reflect the wider population and bridge people from different walks of life.  Food security and high-quality public transportation benefits everyone, but are essential for people with low incomes to ensure that they have access to good nutrition, employment and recreational opportunities. 

In the Bow Valley we don’t have the cachet of urban centres like Toronto, Paris and New York.  But we can learn from them and we too can seize the window of opportunity in the post-pandemic recovery period to re-imagine and re-invent our communities. 

Vamini Selvanandan © 2020. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license. This article was originally published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on June 18, 2020. Photo credit: Ksenia Chernaya on Pexels.com

Further reading:

Re-imagining Work: We can do better

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a great revealer.  While creating new challenges, it is also shining a light on those problems in our society that we have chosen to ignore.   The pandemic has opened our eyes to the plight of seniors in long-term care, inadequate housing on reserves, and crowded shelters for the homeless.

As a result of the pandemic, we now see and appreciate the essential workers in our community – grocery clerks ensuring we can access food, cleaners keeping our facilities virus-free and health care aides caring for our seniors. 

The pandemic has also made us see all too plainly how we have undervalued our essential workers.   We ask frontline workers to work for low wages in physically-demanding jobs and under conditions that put their health and the health of their families at risk.

The pandemic has highlighted the need for fair payment for essential frontline work and the importance of providing safe working conditions.  Paid a living wage, health care aides would not go from job to job in senior care facilities carrying the lethal virus with them.  Given safe working conditions, or at least proper attention when they sounded the alarm, meat packers in High River would not have suffered the largest COVID-19 outbreak in North America.  

We in the Bow Valley have largely been spared the ravages of coronavirus infection with 4 cases in Banff and 18 cases in Canmore and area as of May 15, 2020.  While many parts of the province are seeing a decline in COVID-19 cases, the real danger to Bow Valley communities is just beginning.  The economic relaunch means large numbers of visitors could flood in, bringing with them the risk of infection.  Being in close proximity to Calgary, the largest reservoir of coronavirus in the province, we need to be vigilant and prudent in re-opening our economy. 

Let us build an economy that lives within its means.

We have frontline workers in the hospitality industry who are about to be exposed to new risks.  They deserve fair treatment and safe working conditions like essential frontline workers.  A 2018 study showed that hotel workers in the Bow Valley suffered a 48% higher rate of physical injuries requiring time off work or modified duties than hotel workers in the rest of Alberta.  Bow Valley hospitality workers suffer from mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and substance abuse.  They face social challenges including isolation, workplace discrimination and lack of social support.

As we relaunch, we have a chance to put this right.  We have a chance to reimagine what work looks like in the Bow Valley and build something better.  Let us begin by acknowledging how hard our frontline workers labour and the risks they take.  Let us pay them a decent wage that allows them to thrive in our communities.  Let us provide them with safe working environments and give them voice and agency in addressing safety concerns in the workplace.  Let us treat our workers with respect and without discrimination.  

Let us build an economy that lives within its means – an economy that recognizes the boundaries imposed by labour, housing, infrastructure and environmental considerations in the Bow Valley.  To sustain our communities, we do not need to create an economy that looms larger than necessary and thrives on the exploitation of people and nature.  As we rebuild our economy, we can focus on making it better, not bigger.  If you agree that we are all in this together, now is the time to show that you mean it.

By Vamini Selvanandan© 2020. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license. This article was originally published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on May 21, 2020. Photo credit: Chelsey Horne on Pexels .com

Further reading:

Confidence during the COVID-19 Crisis

In times of crisis, we reap the benefits of the society we have built around us.  This is why knowing that I live in Canada lets me sleep better at night.  Although the novel coronavirus causing the global pandemic is virtually identical in all parts of the world, it is having dramatically different consequences in different countries. How countries are dealing with this imminent threat is rooted in their social and political fabric.

Good governance can go a long way to mitigating the impact of the virus.  In Canada, we are seeing federal and provincial policymakers basing decisions on available scientific evidence and being consistent in their approach and messaging to Canadians.  They look to experts in public health to guide them with the timing and intensity of health protection measures.

Provincial and federal governments are also putting people’s safety before the economy, instituting strict social distancing measures and travel advisories knowing full well that these measures will grind the economy to a halt.  Opposing parties have set aside political ideology to work together and pass laws quickly for getting money into the pockets of Canadians.  We only have to turn our attention south of the border to see what the consequences of the pandemic could look like if we lacked these aspects of good governance.  

A month ago, few people knew about the discipline of public health.  Today Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s top public health official, is a household name.  She leads the province’s public health system:  a robust mechanism that provides health protection, disease prevention and health promotion. 

Countries with good public health infrastructure are able to identify and isolate infectious cases early in an outbreak, trace and monitor contacts closely and mandate measures such as social distancing swiftly and effectively.  This slows down the spread of disease and flattens the epidemiological curve.  In Italy, where early and effective public health action was lacking, people who might have survived with appropriate treatment are dying because the health care system has become overwhelmed. 

In good times and in bad, we can remind our politicians that the economy works in service of the people and not the other way around.

Here in Alberta, we have become accustomed to receiving daily updates on the extent of infections in our province and the corresponding measures to counteract the spread.  Anyone with an internet connection can get detailed information on case numbers, distribution and demographics. 

When leaders give clear and reliable information to the public, we can better appreciate the gravity of the situation and take measures to protect our health and that of our family, friends and community members. 

Transparency allays anxiety and engenders trust, so when our personal liberties are curtailed, we understand why and are better able to comply.  

One can only wonder if transparency and freedom of speech had been part of the social fabric in China, would the world be faced with this pandemic today?  Instead of muzzling the medical doctor who sounded the alarm on early COVID-19 cases, if Chinese authorities had heeded his warning, the outbreak may well have been contained within Wuhan and never spread outside.

We have many reasons to be confident that our country is dealing well with this pandemic.  But we can do better. 

In good times and in bad, we can remind our politicians that the economy works in service of the people and not the other way around.  We can urge policymakers to restore funding to public health systems that provincial governments have scaled back in recent years.

We can use the same resolve we are showing to combat COVID-19 to rally against other more sustained and disastrous threats like climate change.  And most importantly, we can all work together to address the gaps in our society that create poverty, homelessness and inequality.  Because in our interconnected society, if some of us are vulnerable, we are all vulnerable.

By Vamini Selvanadan© 2020. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license. This article was originally published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on April 16, 2020. Photo credit: CDC from Pexels

Further reading:

Public schools matter

Universal access to publicly-funded healthcare is a source of national pride and a social policy that Canadians are willing to go to great lengths to defend.  But how passionate are we about preserving a robust public education system? 

Recent events locally and provincially challenge our resolve on this very issue.  Exshaw School is under threat of closure due to changes in federal funding for indigenous students and public schools provincially are under threat from the UCP government’s proposed Choice in Education Act.

Education like health is a public good.  Market theory with its emphasis on choice and competition – with few external controls – cannot be applied to education any more than it can be to health.  Providing public funding for charter, private and religious schools to compete with public schools only undermines the efficiencies of a single high-performing system.

Public schools are an effective means of delivering education.  Research from the United States shows that public schools outperform private schools when socioeconomic status is taken into account.  Finland has the highest-ranking education system in the world and all schools in the country are publicly funded; no school is allowed to charge tuition fees.  Schools are encouraged to co-operate and innovate together rather than compete with one another, leading to world class results.

Inclusion is the hallmark of public schools.  Public schools recognize every child’s right to education and welcome every child.   By contrast, Catholic schools turn away students based on religion, charter schools screen out students with low test scores, and private schools refuse students who cannot pay tuition fees.  We wouldn’t accept a health care system that denied people service on the basis of religion, ability or income, so why do we tolerate an education system that does exactly that? 

By accepting and valuing children from all backgrounds, public schools embrace and celebrate diversity.  They teach inclusion and tolerance, foster good citizenship and increase empathy.  Public schools best prepare students for the real world where businesses thrive on employee diversity, and where complex political and social problems are solved by including diverse perspectives in decision-making.

Public schools recognize every child’s right to education

and welcome every child.

Health and education are inextricably linked:  poor health can be an obstacle to pursuing education, while educational attainment leads to better health outcomes.  Education improves health directly by providing individuals with basic knowledge and skills, and indirectly enhances people’s ability to lead a healthy life by improving life circumstances in employment, income, food security and social support networks.

Public schools are a powerful way to reduce avoidable and unfair health differences (health inequities) among different segments of society.  Being free and accessible to all, public schools reach and benefit everyone regardless of race, religion and socioeconomic status.  Education is the great equalizer, reducing income inequities and breaking the cycle of poverty for the most disadvantaged.  Decreasing inequity benefits rich and poor alike:  more equal societies have less mental illness, fewer crimes, less substance use and more trust among strangers. 

Public schools are also community hubs that bring together families and neighbours, creating bonds and interpersonal relationships through shared experiences.  Frequent contact with neighbours and other community members increases trust, social networks and shared values, all factors linked to better health outcomes. 

Public schools give all children an opportunity to develop to their full potential, and in doing so, improve health and social outcomes for individuals, families and communities.  The provincial public engagement survey on choice in education closed last week and as a physician and a parent, I let Jason Kenney and the UCP government know that I choose a province that is more tolerant, safe and healthy because of universal access to high quality education.  When it comes to education in Alberta, public schools are the only choice.

By Vamini Selvanandan© 2019. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license. This article was originally published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on December 12, 2019. Photo credit: Pixabay on Pexels.com

Further reading:

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