Minimum Wage or Guaranteed Livable Income?

What’s better, a higher minimum wage, or a guaranteed livable income? Or nothing at all?

I know business owners who work twice as hard as their staff and take home less, and they really cannot afford a higher minimum wage. I also know business owners who could pay more, but don’t because they don’t have to. Their staff go to the food bank while they go on expensive holidays. (Indirectly, the food bank is subsidizing their holidays, right?)

If we use a higher minimum wage, greedy business owners will be forced to shape up. But the small business owners who are barely scraping by might have to close. That’s a problem.

A guaranteed livable income might be the better policy. The first question is: how will we pay for it? The answer to that is actually quite easy: tax richer people and big corporations at a higher rate than low- and middle-class workers, and small businesses. Progressive income tax–and closing the tax loopholes that allow rich people and corporations to avoid paying their fair share–is more than enough to pay for a guaranteed livable income for everybody who needs it.

An advantage for people who need help is that, instead of having to run all over the place proving that they are disabled, or poor, or running from an abusive partner, they can go to a single window where all they have to do is prove their income. Less red tape, fewer government staff and fewer people falling between the cracks.

It’s not true that a guaranteed livable income is a disincentive to work. First of all, the guaranteed livable income is not a lot of money. Second, most people enjoy working. Folks on assistance report that they would like to work, at least part time, in order to afford a few extras, but cannot because then they’d lose all their benefits. With our current system, we’re robbing businesses–particularly rural agricultural and food processing businesses–of valuable workers, and folks of the dignity and hope even a part-time job can bring.

Doing nothing is not an option: automation is going to destroy a third of all jobs over the next 10 years. We don’t have a policy framework that can handle the turmoil that this will cause. We have to start talking about this, and experimenting with a variety of solutions.

Meanwhile, last week in the Alberta legislature, before debate could even begin, Wildrose and Progressive Conservative MLAs voted against first reading of Bill 17. That proposed law is far from groundbreaking, and does nothing to prepare for the automation of our future. It simply ensures things like workplace leave for parents looking after kids with long-term illness, leave for women suffering from domestic violence, and ensures that people with disabilities are paid no less than minimum wage. Hardly earth shattering.

So I don’t know how we are going to reconfigure our legislative framework to prepare for a very challenging future, including massive job losses due to automation, when our conservative MLAs won’t even discuss basic labour laws that are commonplace all over the civilized world. They should play politics during elections, not when there is work to be done.


  1. Update: I’ve seen been talking to a lot more small business owners, and NONE of them pay only minimum wage. So it seems that the low minimum wage is actually functioning as a subsidy for companies like Walmart, because a lot of government programs offer help to people on low incomes.

    Translation: taxpayers are paying to increase Walmart’s profits.

    So….I think I’d change a couple of things in this article: employers with over 50 staff should pay a higher minimum wage than small businesses. Or perhaps small businesses could receive a different subsidy to support their success.

    But I stand by a Guaranteed Livable Income….making poor people jump through hoops to get the help they need achieves nothing except increased government costs.


  2. September 12, 2017 UPDATE: Statistics Canada released information last week that 18.1 per cent of Albertans made less than $15 an hour in August. Meanwhile, the living wage in Edmonton, Calgary, Grande Prairie and Fort Mac is higher.

    What that means is the folks making less than $16.31 are probably accessing the food bank, and a lot of government services, in order to stay above water. Those are things that are paid for by you and me….so we are, in effect, subsidizing the businesses that pay low wages.

    That’s okay with me IF those businesses are small and struggling. It’s not okay if those businesses are large corporations owned by rich families or foreign shareholders.


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