A Valentine’s Day gift for benefit designers – a tale of two GAI’s
Last week, I self-published: A young person’s guide to a guaranteed annual or basic income.
In the Toronto Star on Saturday February 12, there was a lead editorial on Guaranteed and basic incomes that set out the usual cautions about beautiful unicorns that don’t exist. I won’t go into the details here.
Instead, I want to build on my essay of one week ago and talk about two real people – two seniors – that already have guaranteed annual incomes. One is comfortable and the other is poor. The first is my father and the second is a woman for whom I have advocated. Her name is Linda Chamberlain.
Let’s start with my father. He is 96 and in comparatively good health. He lives in his roomy family home which is bought and paid for. He has a defined benefit pension which on its own, keeps him out of poverty. No form of guaranteed annual income (GAI) would ever give him more money than he already receives in his pension. He also has savings.
But here’s the thing: he also gets Old Age Security (OAS), Canada Pension (CPP) and a nice stipend from Veterans’ Affairs Canada. All in all – three public sources of income – all part of the $160 billion or so Canada spends in income security – pays him additional funds.
My father is a veteran of World War II. He enlisted in September 1939 and came back home in August 1945. He was in harm’s way on many occasions. He worked on the encryption machines code-named ENIGMA popularized in the movie The Imitation Game.
All of this is important because my father receives considerably more money from public sources than does Linda Chamberlain. They both receive Old Age Security in the same amount. She also gets the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) and payments from the Guaranteed Annual Income System for Aged (GAINS-A) in Ontario. She also receives GST credits and money from Ontario’s Trillium program along with electricity rebates. Linda rents in subsidized housing and pays about $400 a month. She has no savings and a small amount of debt.
The amount of money Linda gets from her five public sources is less than what my father receives from OAS, CPP and Veterans’ Affairs. My father gets about $33,000 a year from OAS, CPP and Veterans’ Affairs. Linda receives about $18,000 from 5 sources of income. My father is not living in poverty. Linda is poor.
But that’s not where the comparison ends. It’s where it begins.
My father has medical bills that are largely paid for through his former employer and Veterans’ Affairs. Linda has medical expenses that are not covered at all. Most have been delisted from health insurance in Ontario. Living in an older public building with expensive heating, Linda’s utility bills are in the stratosphere.
If Linda goes to the bank to get a loan to pay off her debts, the quoted interest rate is approximately 10% (and that’s after I offered to guarantee payment just to get a quote). My father can secure a line of credit loan with an interest rate of just over 3%.
Linda did not apply for CPP because the recovery rate on her GIS and GAINS-A would be exactly 100%. Linda can’t make money by making speeches because her honorariums are recovered at 100% off of her ‘guaranteed annual income’. If Linda were to get a job at age 66, her rent would go up by 30 cents on the dollar and her GIS (after $3,500 in earnings) would go down by 50 cents on the dollar. As a result, Linda has no savings and realistically cannot save anything.
In contrast, if my father gets more money, his housing costs do not go up and his income from the federal government does not go down. My father can put his savings into a Tax Free Savings Account (TFSA) and pay no tax on it at all. When he invests, his tax rate on capital gains is half of what he pays on his income. If he has dividends, he gets a dividend tax credit.
This is a tale of two guaranteed annual incomes. One comes in just below the poverty line and would be higher than the poverty line if Linda’s $2,000 in yearly honorariums were not confiscated at 100%.
My father’s guaranteed annual income is considerably above the poverty line but he can save tens of thousands of dollars with no tax implications and the highest rate of taxation he theoretically could pay on his capital gains is about 24%.
The political realities are that Linda may get some more GIS money from the new government in Ottawa and her income may go above the poverty line. That’s a tick mark for a basic income – maybe even a GAI. But what Linda faces in recovery rates on her benefits added to the new expenses she has to pay for along with her higher seniors’ rent, there is no comparison to what she confronts compared to what my father faces.
Yet the more important reality for supporters of a GAI or a basic income is that no one is going to take benefits away from a World War II veteran who served overseas in harm’s way for the entire duration of the war. No one is going to reduce his CPP or OAS payments. No one is going to touch his pension. No one is going to get rid of the TFSA or tax capital gains at the normal rate of personal taxation. So GAI proponents who think they are going to reduce existing benefits to modest earners: guess again.
Similarly, even if GIS goes up for a single senior with no other income, there is no discussion of reform of GAINS-A, no one is talking about higher GST credits or increased Trillium payments. No one is talking about lower rents in rent geared to income (RGI) housing and no one is talking about paying higher OAS to poor seniors.
This means is that there is a massive chasm between the dream of a GAI and its ultimate design.
Design is important.
It is the fine print.
And it is the difference between two very different guaranteed or basic incomes: the GAI or basic income for a low income person versus the guaranteed income for the comfortable.
We have a lot of work to do on design. Shall we begin?
Js/February 14 -2016
 His income would only go down if his OAS is clawed back.