Is Designing a Cruelty-Free Basic Income Possible? Depends on What You’re Trying to Accomplish

Mike Moffatt
6 min readJul 10, 2020

Part 3 in a series. Part 1 examines the impact of the PBO Basic Income plan on disabled Canadians. Part 2 shows the real-world harms when the Basic Income cheque-for-cuts playbook is used in practice.

TL;DR: It is possible to create a cruelty-free Basic Income by abandoning the cheques-for-cuts playbook. The goals of “simplifying the system” and “leaving no one behind” are inherently at odds, as the complex needs of Canadians require programs that can handle complexity. Any Basic Income program with simplification as a goal will harm marginalized and vulnerable Canadians.

As I’ve stated in my previous two pieces, it’s important to note that the Basic Income (BI) movement is dedicated to improving the lives of Canadians and would be horrified by the idea that the cuts in their plans would hurt the most marginal and vulnerable in our society. The problem with these plans is not the intent of the advocates, but simply that the advocates haven’t thought through the harms that their proposed cuts would cause.

A common refrain I hear when I talk about the harms that would be caused to Canadians with disabilities by the PBO BI plan, or the Ontario Autism Program, or the Wynne government’s BI pilot, or any of the many BI plans on Prof. Tedds’ wonderful Google Sheet is “well, that just shows that all of those plans are bad, not that the Basic Income concept is inherently flawed.”

And… they’re right. Even if I were to show that all of the existing plans are harmful, that does not prove that it’s impossible to design a program that was not.

So instead of examining existing proposals, let’s start from first principles. How could we go about designing a cruelty-free basic income? Fortunately, we have a guide to work from: Considerations for Basic Income as a COVID-19 Response by Green, Kesselman, and Tedds. In the guide, they identify six fundamental questions:

  1. What overarching principles define a basic income policy?
  2. What specifically is the objective?
  3. What are the details of the BI program design?
  4. What is the cost of the program and what, if any, other tax and benefit program changes would be made to finance the program?
  5. How would the introduction of a basic income, together with any consequential changes to other programs, affect the behaviour of individuals, employers and other actors in the economy?
  6. Is a basic income the best way to achieve the stated objectives, or are there alternative programs or other reforms that could be made that could achieve similar objectives?

Question 2 is particularly important here. What, specifically, are the primary and secondary objectives of a basic income?

Often in BI plans, two objectives are “simplicity” and “reducing administrative costs”. We often hear elevator pitches for a Basic Income similar to this one: “Our plan takes rolls a bunch of existing programs into one, makes the system less complex, needs fewer administrators to manage, because there’s no eligibility criteria, and those savings can help fund the program.”

This all sounds totally reasonable. Where it falls down is that it fails to recognize that those programs getting rolled together all serve different purposes, which are lost through consolidation. As the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty notes:

There are different ways that a BI could be implemented. The Ontario Report suggests that disabled people get $500 extra in recognition that the ‘costs of living with a disability’ are higher than those faced by non disabled people. However, this isn’t true in the same way across the board. The expenses of someone having to pay the daily cost of a service dog, someone who needs special dietary items, someone who must pay for attendant care, someone who has to pay for ASL interpretation or someone who has to replace a $40,000 wheelchair are all very different. If BI were used as a pretext to eliminate other systems of support, there are a whole range of needs that different disabled people have that would be placed out of range for them.

You can’t simply introduce a “disabilities” top-up as a replacement for existing programs, as the needs for a person with autism are different than a person with cerebral palsy. In fact, the needs of one person with autism are different than another person with autism. Any program (or set of programs) that considers needs is going to be inherently complex, and require administration, because the needs of Canadians are complex.

If we truly want to support Canadians with disabilities, we need more administrators, so claims can get processed quicker, and persons with disabilities receive more guidance to access existing supports.

You cannot replace needs-based programs with one-size-fits-all supports without making high-needs individuals worse off, no matter how noble your intentions are. The math simply does not work.

So how do you create a cruelty-free basic income?

The even-numbered questions are particularly helpful here:

Question 2 — What specifically is the objective?

In order to create a cruelty-free basic income, simplification and administrative savings must be abandoned as objectives. They are fundamentally at odds with supporting Canadians with complex needs.

Question 4 — What is the cost of the program and what, if any, other tax and benefit program changes would be made to finance the program?

Any needs-based program should not be rolled into a Basic Income. They need to be left out of the discussion. Period. Any attempt to roll them in is simply transferring resources and supports away from persons with disabilities.

So let’s go to our list of cuts from the PBO Basic Income report. We need to change the cuts from this:

To something more like this:

Any program that considers needs (beyond someone’s taxable income) should be spared from the knife. I may have misclassified a program or two in the above; my apologies in advance if I have done so.

I’m anticipating that this will generate a reaction like:

Mike, those programs you want to spare are horrible. ODSP should stand for “On Disability, Stuck in Poverty”. The complex set of rules around Ontario Works are ridiculous. We shouldn’t be offering medical supports through the tax system like the Disability Tax Credit does. We need far better supports for Canadians with disabilities.

To which I respond: I agree! 100%. Let’s create better programs for Canadians with disabilities. Let’s offer those supports through the appropriate systems (health, housing, etc.), rather than the tax system. Let’s increase the well being of the most marginalized and vulnerable Canadians.

But we’re not going to do that by simply abolishing programs and funneling the money through a Basic Income.

Like needs to replace like. Basic Income needs to replace non-needs based supports, and better needs-based support programs need to replace existing needs-based support programs. If you try to replace a needs-based supports program with a non-needs based one, you get Ford’s Ontario Autism Program.

So, you can create a cruelty-free Basic Income program with this one simple trick: Don’t use funds from needs-based programs to finance it.

Finally, there’s Question 6:

Question 6 — Is a basic income the best way to achieve the stated objectives, or are there alternative programs or other reforms that could be made that could achieve similar objectives?

Just because we can create a cruelty-free Basic Income, doesn’t mean we should. Once we’re clear about what we’re trying to accomplish, I think we’ll find that other reforms would accomplish better outcomes at a lower cost. But I’ll leave that for another time.



Mike Moffatt

Senior Director, Smart Prosperity. Assistant Prof, Ivey Business School. Exhausted but happy Dad of 2 wonderful kids with autism. I used to do other stuff.