As seasonal food-drives warm the hearts and bellies of Islanders, they remind us of how much we rely on each other to get through the harsh Canadian winters, not to mention the challenging springs, summers, and falls.
It is also heartwarming to hear people's charitable giving accompanied by the question why. Why is a Christmas dinner so far beyond the reach of thousands of Islanders? Why are so many Islanders cold in their homes? Why do systems supposedly set up to support impoverished people instead seem to trap them in poverty? Why, as a society, would we ever allow family, friends, and neighbours to struggle to meet their basic needs?
In asking the question of "why," we find the kernel of social justice.
With so many Islanders asking "why," it's time to broaden the answer to another question: "What can we do?" Beyond food baskets that run out and social assistance that doesn't cover the basics, new answers are emerging to improve the health and well-being of all Islanders.
One answer that Prince Edward Island can realistically and optimistically explore is a basic income guarantee for all Islanders.
Sometimes called a guaranteed annual income or guaranteed livable income, a basic income guarantee is a promise that each and every Islander would receive enough income to meet basic needs.
Basic income is being looked at many places around the world, from Switzerland to Brazil to Alaska, as a way to eliminate poverty. A basic income is an investment in people. It is designed to guarantee that every woman, man, and child will have an income that supports their dignity, their health, their well-being, and their freedom to participate fully in their society. These are the basic human rights of every person.
The basic income is not another hand-out model. It is a re-envisioning of how we share our resources so that every person has enough to live on. Basic income does not make people rich: it does, as it implies, cover the basics. Those who can and desire to can top this up by personal income.
In 2011, about 19,000 people in P.E.I. were estimated to be living in low income. That's 13 per cent of the population.
Many Islanders live from cheque to cheque and struggle to make ends meet. Two-thirds of Islanders - about 63 per cent - make under $30,000 a year, and 39 per cent of the population makes less than $20,000 a year.
In addition, 65 per cent of all households living on income support in P.E.I. are headed by an Islander living with a disability. Other vulnerable groups include seniors, newcomers, Aboriginal Islanders, single people, and single-parent families (82 per cent led by women). Many other groups are at high risk of low income, including many small- and medium-sized business owners, entrepreneurs, food producers, and caregivers.
Maintaining a system that impoverishes Islanders is expensive. The direct cost of poverty to the P.E.I. government is almost $100 million per year. The indirect costs of poverty on P.E.I. are up to $220 million a year. This total cost of poverty of $315 million a year, equals as much as $2,700 per person, per year.
Poverty harms people and our society by creating poor health, social exclusion, and barriers to participation in communities and our democracy. Current programs to alleviate poverty strip people of their dignity and still fail to meet people's basic needs. The province's long-awaited Social Action Plan does not respond to the needs of people living in low income.
Addressing poverty in P.E.I. has focused too much on charity and Band-Aid solutions. It has not focused enough on policy and justice. We can do better.
Eliminating poverty on the Island is possible. Eliminating poverty will create greater social justice and uphold citizens' human rights.
The P.E.I. Working Group for a Livable Income is building a campaign to think big, to act big, to see big. The Campaign for a Basic Income Guarantee, C-BIG, will roll out in 2014 with inspiring ideas about how basic income can work for Prince Edward Island.
A basic income guarantee will result in healthy individuals, well-supported families, socially just communities, and a thriving provincial economy.
Michelle Jay and Jane Ledwell,
P.E.I. Working Group for a Livable Income