Skip to content

B.C. study argues for global basic income, despite opposition

A UBC study argues a basic income could boost GDP around the world, but such an income may be some time away from being in place, if ever.
A UBC study calls for a global basic income funded through a tax on pollution. (Unsplash)

A new UBC study proposes to fund a basic income with a tax on pollution and environmental destruction.

But such a step may be some time away from being implemented, if ever.

Dr. Rashid Sumaila, a professor with UBC's school of public policy and global affairs, said he and his co-authors looked into the subject after the COVID-19 pandemic saw the emergence of several social schemes to support people. Another inspiration was research in the developing world showing income support ends up improving ecological sustainability by discouraging over-exploitation. 

"So how do we save two birds with one stone, and that's the kind of solution I thought this would be," Sumaila said. 

Basic incomes involve unconditional, regular payments to some or all members of a society. Several jurisdictions have seen small-scale experiments with the concept, including British Columbia. 

Jiaying Zhao, a professor at UBC's Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, led a year-long-study during which 50 individuals experiencing homelessness in Vancouver received $7,500 each to do as they please. The study, published in 2023, found recipients spent 99 fewer days homeless, increased their savings, and saved society an average of $777 each by spending less time in shelters. They did not spend more money on temptation goods (like alcohol, drugs and tobacco) than the control group.

Sumaila sees his research in that tradition, but with a global perspective. The study, which analyzed 186 countries, found that providing a basic income to all adults in the world could boost global GDP by about 130 per cent. For every dollar invested, approximately US$4 to $7 of economic impacts could be generated, it found. 

"Now, the next thing is to try to see how, if ever, this could be implemented," Sumaila said. 

Sumaila acknowledged that the current political climate does not favour the idea.

"The headwinds are real, they are big," he said in pointing to the rising strength of parties on the right side of the political spectrum, which have historically opposed such schemes.

Ironically, U.S. Republican president Richard Nixon had proposed a basic income scheme for poor Americans in the late 1960s during the heydays of economic policies influenced by the theories of British economist Maynard Keynes. But the scheme never materialized. But the concept re-emerged in recent years and B.C. in 2018 actually commissioned an expert panel to look into it.

In January 2021, the panel recommended against the idea. Its final report cited both practical and philosophical objections to the idea.

"The needs of people in this society are too diverse to be effectively answered simply with a cheque from government," it reads. "A basic income is a very costly approach to addressing any specific goal, such as poverty reduction, which is part of our reasoning."

The authors of that report say they share a belief in personal autonomy, but argue that monetary resources contribute only partly to true autonomy. They argue it is also found in "building, supportive, mutually beneficial communities" and policies designed to reduce poverty must come with public trust — "not just among those who most need support but also among those who will see themselves mostly paying" into the system.

"Our guiding philosophy is one of reciprocity, which inclines our analysis to address issues of economic impacts, incentives of policies, financing requirements and B.C.'s fiscal capacity."

The panel instead recommended 65 improvements to the existing social system> B.C.'s Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction said in a statement over half of the recommendations have been fully implemented, partially implemented or are underway. 

Sumaila, for his part, strikes a positive note when it comes to realizing the central idea of his paper: a basic income funded through a price on pollution. The idea adheres to the established economic principle of polluters paying for the damage which they cause and more and more people, especially younger generations, are starting to see the relationship between social and environmental justice.

"So I don't think this (political opposition) is going to persist forever, right? Political winds, they shift around."


Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
Read more