Could a guaranteed liveable basic income help reduce incarceration?

You probably believe in a Guaranteed Basic Income, too!” the voice on the other end of the phone said mockingly.

Guaranteed Basic Income? Actually, I’d never heard of that before—but it immediately struck me as a good idea. I was a new mother at the time, calling my provincial Premier to raise concerns about the reduction of funding to services in my inner-city neighbourhood. I knew the Premier’s staffer and I were going to disagree. I didn’t expect that she would (albeit unintentionally) teach me something important.

Guaranteed Liveable Basic Income (GLBI). “Yes,” I said, “I do believe in that.”

I still do. And my work at CFSC will include efforts to make that idea a reality in Canada. Guaranteeing a basic income to everyone could reduce poverty, improve health and educational, and reduce incarceration.

The connection between poverty and over-incarceration is incontrovertible. For instance, according to research done by the John Howard Society, 22% of people were unhoused at the time of their incarceration.1 As Senator Kim Pate once said, “Canadian prisons and jails are receptacles for people who have been failed by other systems.”

Leah Gazan (in Parliament) and Kim Pate (in Senate) recently put forward bills in their respective chambers, calling on the Canadian government to open discussions with stakeholders about what a GLBI might entail, who would be eligible, and more. These are important conversations to have: and the good news is there’s a precedent for them.

As an International Development Studies professor, I came across the visionary Mincome experiment that took place in Dauphin, Manitoba, in the 1970s. A common concern about GLBI is that people might take advantage of the program and stop working. (I see that as a pessimistic and capitalist view of human nature: that we need to ‘work’ to have value, and that work is always a burden that people must be driven to do.)

What the Dauphin Mincome experiment showed was that people generally kept working, with the important exceptions of new mothers (who were able to stay home longer with their babies) and teenage boys (who stayed in school or returned to school). Additional money that the GLBI provided was largely spent on what before had been ‘extras’ like going back to school, dental care, or children’s activities.

This is not to say that a GLBI is perfect. Indeed there are potential problems that Friends—as people with a deep and longstanding concern for social justice—need to be aware of.

We need to ensure that any implementation of a GLBI doesn’t become a slippery slope to the privatization of social services, or used as a way to misdirect attention from Indigenous sovereignty movements (a government could conceivably use their help of individuals instead of Nations as a way to evade the responsibility for reparations including land back). We would also need to make sure that a GLBI would not simply provide a subsidy for employers to keep people in bad low-paying jobs and undercut the struggle for social justice.

Moreover, a GLBI would need to be truly universal. Social benefits usually demand that people prove they’re looking for work (while ignoring the important unpaid labour many are often already doing, like parenting, cleaning, cooking, caring for loved ones, studying, and being community members). A truly universal basic income would not include such demands.

CFSC believes that “universal” should also include people who are currently incarcerated. Inmates in Canadian Federal prisons are usually paid $3.15 a day, a sum which hasn’t changed since 1981. A big cause of recidivism inside (that is, infractions that are incurred by people who are incarcerated and that then lead to additional charges and longer periods of incarceration) is that there is simply no way to support family members or get enough supplies or good food with $3.15 a day. Black markets and illegal industries proliferate behind prison walls.

CFSC encourages Quakers to engage with GBLI. It’s an important issue. One thing you can do right now is visit the website It has lots of additional information on a GLBI, and multiple ways to respond.

Another thing you can do if you’re in Canada is to meet with or contact your Member of Parliament (MP). For the basics of how to visit with your MP see our handout This is a good time to bring to your MP’s attention that new GLBI legislation is in the first stages of the parliamentary process. It’s important that MPs know GLBI is an issue their constituents care about. There will eventually be a vote, so educating MPs to vote in favour of this legislation is an important task you can help with!

We look forward to engaging, alongside Quakers across the country, in exploring GBLI further.

Karen Ridd is CFSC’s new Transformative Justice Program Coordinator.

  1. John Howard Society of Ontario, The counter point,2014,