Profound Transformations: Armine Yalnizyan on Public Investment

“It was like falling head over heels in love,” says Canadian economist and writer, Armine Yalnizyan, describing her recent trip to Aotearoa to speak at the CTU’s Biennial Conference.

Armine lived here 40 years ago and believes much has occurred since for the country to be proud of; the first being how much children are visible in our society.
“It just feels like children are so celebrated publicly in New Zealand,” she says, reserving particular delight for how many men she saw with their kids.

For a country that is so frequently at the wrong end of statistics on family violence and child abuse, Armine’s genuine enthusiasm is somewhat of a surprise. When this is raised, she does not minimise the problems but is positive about the foundations we have laid. She is watching how the Labour-led Government plans to build on these foundations closely.

Gendering the budget

Of particular interest to Armine is the way in which the Government plans to close the gender pay gap and put child wellbeing at the centre of policy design.

Armine has advocated for the integration of gender analysis into budgeting, arguing that budgets are a feminist issue. She has recently seen the results of her advocacy come to fruition in Canada, where the Government has released the first federal budget that includes a look at the differences between men and women.

“The last 30 years have been anti-female,” Armine reflects, referring to the prevailing neo-liberal ideology. “Reductions in public spending are more heavily borne by women, as women produce and consume more services.” She cites healthcare facilities and public transport as clear examples of where spending cuts disproportionately impact women.

However – Canada’s example aside – central government budgets are rarely viewed through this lens, and Armine freely admits that to do so on any practicable level is “radical,” most obviously because it changes the way in which we assess need.

Social Wage v Universal Basic Income

The mechanism by which gender analysis is enacted is where Armine differs from others advocating for a Universal Basic Income.

“I understand where the instinct comes from,” Armine says. She believes that for many, it “is the unfinished business of the welfare state of the 20th Century.”

Why didn’t it arrive? “Because it’s expensive.”

“If you’re going to use it reduce poverty in a strictly numeric term…[a UBI] would cost Canada $30 billion, in addition to everything we currently spend on poverty reduction in an income term,” says Armine.

Armine advocates instead for the ‘social wage’, whereby everyone has enough income for living as determined by membership of a society, rather than employment (as in the case of a UBI).

In practice, a social wage means a greater role for government in core services.

From Armine’s perspective, this includes free post-secondary education; cheap or free dental and vision care; cheap or free public transport; growing affordable housing by 20,000 units per year; and keeping childcare below $10 per day (something which is already being trialled in Quebec, with positive results).

“People can rely on these things irrespective of income,” says Armine. What’s more, they would cost less than a UBI.

For Armine, the social wage is about fairness and equity – she believes that a focus on the net benefit of public investment builds solidarity between citizens. It is also about ensuring that the market delivers on its own terms. “The whole welfare state was predicated on full employment,” she says. “We need people working. We need to be asking ourselves: How many people have jobs? And how good are those jobs?”

By Victoria Crockford