As Catholics we are bound to inform ourselves concerning social developments, particularly those of civic interest, and to consider them in light of the Church’s social doctrine.
This month we consider legislation directed toward development of a Canadian national strategy for implementation of a basic income guarantee. Such initiatives offer opportunities for profound individual and social growth. However, they are complex, and raise a number of issues relevant to Church social teaching.
“Street vendors, recyclers, carnival workers, small farmers, construction workers, seamstresses, the different kinds of caregivers: you who are informal, working on your own or in the grassroots economy, you have no steady income to get you through this hard time … This may be the time to consider a universal basic wage which would acknowledge and dignify the noble, essential tasks you carry out. It would ensure and concretely achieve the ideal, at once so human and so Christian, of no worker without rights.”
(APRIL 12, 2020, LETTER TO THE POPULAR MOVEMENTS)
Bill S-233 – An Act to develop a national framework for a guaranteed livable basic income
- Introduced by Senator Kim Pate on December 16, 2021. At second reading in the Senate; not yet introduced in Commons.
- On stated premises that:
- “every person should have access to a liveable basic income”;
- “the provision of a guaranteed livable basic income would go a long way toward eradicating poverty and improving income equality, health conditions and educational outcomes”;
- “the provision of a guaranteed livable basic income would benefit individuals, families and communities and protect those who are made most vulnerable in society, while facilitating the transition to an economy that responds to the climate crisis and other current major challenges;” and
- “a guaranteed livable basic income program implemented through a national framework would ensure the respect, dignity and security of all persons in Canada;”
The Act would require the federal finance minister to “develop a national framework for the implementation of a guaranteed livable basic income program throughout Canada for any person over the age of 17, including temporary workers, permanent residents and refugee claimants.”
- The framework established by the Finance Minister would be required to include:
- A determination as to “what constitutes a livable basic income for each region in Canada, taking into account the goods and services that are necessary to ensure that individuals can lead a dignified and healthy life, as well as the cost of those goods and services in accessible markets”;
- “national standards for health and social supports that complement a guaranteed basic income program and guide the implementation of such a program in every province”;
- assurances that “participation in education, training or the labour market is not required in order to qualify for a guaranteed livable basic income”; and
- assurances that “the implementation of a guaranteed livable basic income program does not result in a decrease in services or benefits meant to meet an individual’s exceptional needs related to health or disability.”
- The bill requires only development of a plan, with annual reports to Parliament. No specific steps toward implementation are proposed by the bill.
Catholic Social Teaching
The Church has much to say about the purpose and nature of a just economy, founded on principles of life and human dignity—including the dignity of work—the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity; the fundamental values of truth, freedom, justice, and charitable love; and Christian virtues such as wisdom, humility, prudence, and good stewardship.
Pope Francis has spoken frequently of the urgent need to revisit economics, of a just economy shaped to encourage and enable the true human development of all souls. In The Joy of the Gospel, for example, he observed that:
Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings. (58)
We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality. I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism, but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded. (204)
- The principles of solidarity and human dignity speak clearly of the need to ensure that all adults are able to secure meaningful, fulfilling employment within the scope of the abilities that have been given to them by God, and which will support a dignified home and living conditions, particularly for families.
- The principles of solidarity and subsidiarity suggest the need for balance between ensuring that everyone has the basics required for a dignified life and the obligation of every individual to avoid unnecessarily burdening others, by working and caring for themselves within the scope of their abilities.
- Pope Francis and the Compendium have both warned against the false charity of permanent welfare programs which promote long-term dependencies among those living in poverty.
- Recent social experiences have suggested that a society imbued with a sense of commonality, wisdom, and prudence, including a sense of common purpose and the availability of dignified work, is more likely to be viewed by its members as a happy society than one which promotes radical individualism and pits individuals against one another in a perpetual battle for more conspicuous wealth and consumption.
Clearly an initiative of the nature called for by Bill 233 is a worthy, perhaps even a necessary idea. But it would also appear to be a deeply complex issue calling, among other things, for basic agreements on the nature of life and work, and the purpose of an economy as prerequisites to avoid useless or even harmful activities.
It is incumbent upon Catholics to participate in the adoption of such initiatives, on the basis of sober reflection grounded in the full range of social teachings of the Church.
Points to Ponder
Consider discussing the following questions with your local candidates, elected officials, and the parties, and with your family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and fellow parishioners. On prayerful reflection, consider sharing your conclusions with your elected representatives by writing respectful and informative letters. Or, perhaps consider on engaging in the issue more intensively, by participating in advocacy organized by civil society organizations or by joining and participating in a political party or other movement.
- The bill specifies as among its primary purposes the assurance of human dignity and the eradication of poverty; yet it defines neither. Is it possible to address such goals without defining them?
- Which of the criteria enumerated in the Bill’s stated premises are likely to “ensure the respect, dignity and security of all persons in Canada”?
- Is it possible to define either poverty or dignity without social consensus on the meaning and purpose of life? If we accept, with the Church, that the purpose of life is for each of us to increase our closeness to God by doing God’s work with all the time, talent, and treasure that have been entrusted to us (see, eg Matthew 25), we might conclude that poverty consists lacking the means to engage in meaningful, dignified work – raising families, for example, while serving others and celebrating God’s love. Is this reflected in criteria mandated by the bill for consideration by the Finance Minister?
- Is it, in fact, possible to eradicate poverty? Christ himself warned us that “the poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11); possibly because each of us, now and in all generations past, present, and future will be judged on how well we attempt to address poverty in this life – whether we simply throw money at the impoverished or, as Pope Francis says, “take on the smell of the sheep” by walking with the poor, working to create meaningful and fulfilling opportunities for all, and gently guiding everyone toward responsible use of their gifts.
- Do the criteria mandated by this Bill promote such a goal?
- Clearly, the Bill contemplates the creation of vocational training opportunities. Is that enough, or does government bear a greater responsibility, for setting an economic framework that enables and encourages job growth through free enterprise, for example through development of tax benefits tied to the creation of living-wage jobs as an alternative, for example, to automating jobs that might otherwise support skilled artisans?
- What measures does the Bill contemplate for evaluating the overall state of the national economy? As Pope Francis and the Church suggest, mere reliance on growth of domestic product (GDP) has historically tended to emphasize profit over human well-being. Is it possible to apply measures tied to human happiness, health, and cultural growth, for example?
- The Bill contemplates providing a living income to everyone over the age of 17, regardless of family status or willingness to work or seek education. What effects might that have on the well-being of families, or society as a whole?