Give the poor a floor to stand on

You've got to hand it to Jayden Soroka for putting his money where his mouth is. He has a hunch that if you give poor families more money, they make smarter life choices, and he's willing to sell many of his worldly possessions to prove the point.

You’ve got to hand it to Jayden Soroka for putting his money where his mouth is. He has a hunch that if you give poor families more money, they make smarter life choices, and he’s willing to sell many of his worldly possessions to prove the point.

The Yukon filmmaker plans to use the raised money to help boost several struggling families above the poverty line, and then create a documentary about the results.

The underlying idea is a counterintuitive one. Conventional wisdom tells us that the poor owe their lot, in large part, to bad life decisions. It’s impossible to deny there isn’t something to this. Yet there’s good reason to suspect that the inverse is also true: poverty encourages people to make bad life decisions. Give families a reasonable amount of money to meet their needs, this line of thinking goes, and they will invest in their futures in productive ways not otherwise possible, saving society money in the long run.

That’s the idea behind a guaranteed annual income. And there’s some compelling evidence that it works.

The small farming town of Dauphin, Manitoba, became a test-case in the mid-1970s. For a few years residents received a top-up of their incomes, with few strings attached. The provincial government soon lost interest in the program, and many bankers’ boxes worth of data compiled sat gathering dust for many years. When they were finally analyzed recently, the results showed a considerable improvement in health outcomes and high school graduation rates. Adults remained just as likely to work full time, save for women who stayed at home to care for young children, the elderly and disabled relatives – again, offering savings to the state.

Boosters of such a guaranteed income are often anti-poverty advocates who couch their arguments in moral reasoning. They say that everyone in our society deserves enough money to live with dignity, whether they have a job or not. But some of the more interesting arguments for a guaranteed income come from conservatives, who make a more pragmatic case.

No less a conservative thinker than the economist Milton Friedman supported the same idea, which he called a negative income tax. He reckoned that poor people are in most cases the best judges of how to spend money on themselves, and he held a dim enough view of government to suspect bureaucrats are not usually up to this job anyhow.

Hugh Segal, a Progressive Conservative politician who until recently sat as a Canadian senator, has been a passionate advocate of a guaranteed income, and wrote the definitive case for such a plan a few years ago for the Literary Review of Canada.

“Only a small portion of Canadians need expensive health care at any time,” he writes. “But we are there to help as members of a competitive, free market and coherent society – not by embarrassing them with governments asking why they are sick, but by letting their universal health coverage, financed from general revenue, see them through. Since poverty is the most reliable predictor of bad health outcomes, not acting to eradicate it is senseless.”

As Segal envisions it, a guaranteed annual income would be best rolled out as an extension of the federal tax system. Those who fail to earn beyond a certain threshold would receive a top-up. This would cost a big bundle of money, but it would also produce big savings, as the thousands of government workers who run welfare programs for the provinces and territories would suddenly serve no purpose, as, with a guaranteed income program, nobody would qualify for these programs. Further savings would be yielded by reduced cases of mental illness, domestic violence and other ills that thrive in poverty.

A well-designed program could also help eliminate the “welfare wall” created when social assistance recipients see their benefits clawed back when they work, creating a perverse incentive to remain dependent on government hand-outs.

A federally managed guaranteed annual income has been touted by Don Drummond, the former chief economist for TD Bank, and wonks at the Conference Board of Canada. These are serious, sober-minded people, not easily given to flights of idealistic fancy.

Of course, there are massive practical obstacles that stand in the way. You’d need a federal government actually interested in taking on a big, new social commitment, and it would need to persuade the provinces and territories to play along – no sure thing, given that many governments jealously protect their bureaucratic turf.

Given public desire, of course, the Yukon could always go its own way with such an experiment one day. The NDP’s Todd Hardy used to champion the idea. But such a program would obviously be a non-starter for the Yukon Party currently in power.

Meanwhile, nobody even knows how many poor people there are in the Yukon. This is admittedly a tricky question, as there’s no agreed upon method of measuring poverty.

One rough estimate was conducted when the territory prepared its 2010 social inclusion report. It cobbled together Yukoners’ after-tax incomes from the 2006 census and applied these figures to the low income cut-off that Statistics Canada uses nationally for communities of less than 30,000 people. (StatCan’s poverty surveys exclude the territories.)

The results: 360 Yukon households fell beneath the poverty line, or 4.3 per cent. That’s actually less than half of the national average of 8.8 per cent. Unfortunately, this figure doesn’t take into account Yukon’s higher cost of living. Other indicators – such as food bank use and social housing demand – suggest that number should probably be doubled, putting us back on par with national figures.

Perhaps the upshot of all this is that the number of Yukoners under the poverty line is not insignificant, nor insurmountable. In other words, poverty may be a solvable problem in the territory. Whether this is a project that interests our leaders is another matter. If it interests you, tell them.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

In a Feb. 17 statement, the City of Whitehorse announced it had adopted the what3words location technology used for emergency response. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Three words could make all the difference in an emergency

City of Whitehorse announced it had adopted the what3words location technology

Jesse Whelen, Blood Ties Four Directions harm reduction councillor, demonstrates how the organization tests for fentanyl in drugs in Whitehorse on May 12, 2020. The Yukon Coroner’s Service has confirmed three drug overdose deaths and one probable overdose death since mid-January. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Three overdose deaths caused by “varying levels of cocaine and fentanyl,” coroner says

Heather Jones says overdoses continue to take lives at an “alarming rate”

Wyatt's World for Feb. 24, 2021.

Wyatt’s World for Feb. 24, 2021.

Approximately 30 Yukoners protest for justice outside the Whitehorse courthouse on Feb. 22, while a preliminary assault hearing takes place inside. The Whitehorse rally took place after the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society, based in Watson Lake, put out a call to action over the weekend. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Courthouse rally denounces violence against Indigenous women

The Whitehorse rally took place after the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society put out a call to action

Then Old Crow MLA Darius Elias speak’s in the community centre in Old Crow in 2016. Elias died in Whitehorse on Feb. 17. (Maura Forrest/Yukon News file)
Condolences shared for former Vuntut Gwitchin MLA Darius Elias

Elias is remembered as a proud parent, hockey fan and politican

Susie Rogan is a veteran musher with 14 years of racing experience and Yukon Journey organizer. (Yukon Journey Facebook)
Yukon Journey mushers begin 255-mile race

Eleven mushers are participating in the race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse

Yukon Energy in Whitehorse on Aug. 4, 2020. A site on Robert Service Way near the Alaska Highway has been selected as the future home of Yukon Energy’s energy storage project. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Site selected for Yukon Energy battery project

Planned to be in service by the end of 2022

The Yukon government and the Yukon First Nations Chamber of Commerce have signed a letter of understanding under the territory’s new procurement policy. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
First Nation business registry planned under new procurement system

Letter of understanding signals plans to develop registry, boost procurement opportunities

US Consul General Brent Hardt during a wreath-laying ceremony at Peace Arch State Park in September 2020. Hardt said the two federal governments have been working closely on the issue of appropriate border measures during the pandemic. (John Kageorge photo)
New U.S. consul general says countries working closely on COVID-19 border

“I mean, the goal, obviously, is for both countries to get ahead of this pandemic.”

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Start of spring sitting announced

The Yukon legislature is set to resume for the spring sitting on… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse City Council this week

History Hunter: Kwanlin Dün — a book of history, hardship and hope

Dǎ Kwǎndur Ghày Ghàkwadîndur: Our Story in Our Words is published by… Continue reading

(File photo)
RCMP arrest Saskatchewan murder suspect

Yukon RCMP have arrested a man suspected of attempted murder from outside… Continue reading

Most Read