Anti-poverty groups handed out pamphlets outside RBC’s annual general meeting.
The Ontario government is rolling out its basic income pilot project later this year. Roughly speaking, the idea is to provide everyone in a given area—a town, province, or country—a guaranteed set amount of money to meet living expenses, independent of any criteria other than their existence there. While that might sound like the stuff of a socialist’s dream, it’s also been embraced by free-market obsessives, like economist Milton Friedman, who see paying citizens a meagre amount as a way to eliminate welfare programs and undermine the power of the labour movement.
One thorn in the side of any progressive arguing for a universal basic income is the sheer amount of money it would cost to implement; Friedman et. al. have their answer for that, which is that they’d slash other programs to the bone. But if you want to provide a basic income in addition to other social programs, you’re going to need to come up with a lot of money very quickly.
Thankfully for the provincial government, a coalition of anti-poverty groups in the province has just the thing in mind: a maximum income project.
A maximum income is essentially a wage ceiling, a legal limit on how much income an individual can earn.
This idea is likewise not totally unique. Gawker’s (now Fusion) resident class warrior Hamilton Nolan wrote about it in 2012, and French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who’s came in third during Sunday’s vote despite a late surge in popularity, promised to institute a 100 per cent tax on income above 400,000 euro (about $565,000). It would have served a dual purposes, one of which is to provide funds needed both for a basic income and government programs in general.
“Let’s have a maximum annual income of, oh, $5 million, pegged to inflation. All income above that would be taxed at 99 percent. Our precious national sports stars, celebrities, and corporate executives could still be fabulously wealthy,” Nolan writes.
Earlier this year, U.K. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also called for a maximum wage, saying taxpayers would benefit from job creation and improved services as a result of lower pay from the highest income earners.
Meanwhile, outside the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts on a blustery morning on April 6, Susan Bender was one of about a dozen anti-poverty activists handing out pamphlets to people on their way to RBC’s annual general meeting being held inside.
“For years the spotlight has been put on poor people, and what’s wrong with poor people. How come poverty is persisting?” Bender said. “And I think this is shifting the conversation to the real problem, which is a mass accumulation of wealth by a very small number of people.”
The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, Put Food in the Budget, and Raise the Rates are among the groups behind this push. It’s intended to be somewhat satirical, says OCAP organizer Yogi Acharya, playing on the endless rounds of consultations that accompany each new poverty-reduction strategy at every level of government.
In that spirit, organizers handed out leaflets outside the AGM of one of the nation’s largest banks to invite people with “lived experience of wealth” to participate in designing a maximum income project.
Taking cues from approaches to poverty-reduction strategies, the tongue-in-cheek leaflet promises it seeks to include “a mix of nouveau riche and old money,” and that they’re interested in hearing from the wealthy about a number of options.
“Would it be better to relieve the very rich of their Canadian assets or go after their offshore bank accounts?” asks one bullet point. While another ponders if “the very rich suffer from maladjusted conditions that lead them to accumulate more than they could ever need, or are they just greedy and selfish?”
“We’re saying, if you want to talk about real poverty reduction, let’s do the obvious thing,” Acharya said. “Take the wealth away from the people you’ve given it to through these massive corporate tax cuts and tax breaks to the rich, and let’s redistribute it…. We’ve got the maximum income project, and we’re going to orchestrate public consultations, because the Liberals and their rich backers believe in the efficacy of them. So we’re out here today to start it off with the Royal Bank, who’s collaborated with the Ontario social assistance bureaucracy over the years and has profited, reaped a lot of profits through that process.”
Participants in the action echoed sentiments not only heard across the United States in the lead-up to and since the 2016 presidential election but also around the world since the 2008 financial collapse: the wealthy are not paying their fair share, and the poorest among us are left to survive on scraps.
“People on the top have more than they need, and maybe we can fix that by doing this,” said Beth Schilling, who works at the Table Community Food Centre in Leonard County and travelled to the city for the demonstration. She expressed support for the basic income project but is skeptical about whether it will actually work to the benefit of the disadvantaged.
“There’s a lot of people in my community, in Leonard County and Smith Falls, who are very interested in the idea of a basic income because things are so bad,” Schilling said. “They’re not surviving on OW [Ontario Works] or ODSP [Ontario Disability Support Program], they need their rates raised now even though it’s not happening, and they would even prefer a basic income, which is being promised as something that would be even better. Whether or not that will follow through, the proof is in the pudding.”
The maximum income project faces a much steeper uphill battle than anything backed by the government if it’s to be implemented, but organizers are dedicated to including the voices of those most affected: the leaflet invites interested parties to a consultation in the “key priority neighbourhood” of Yorkville on April 27.