A Tory joins poverty debate

TheStar.com – comment – A Tory joins poverty debate
February 14, 2008

For decades, the notion of a guaranteed annual income has been raised in Canadian social policy debates.

A basic floor income for all Canadian adults was first advanced in Canada 35 years ago by Senator David Croll, a progressive Liberal. It was touted again in the 1985 report of a royal commission headed by Donald Macdonald, another Liberal. More recently, the Green party has embraced the concept.

It is refreshing, then, to see a Conservative, Senator Hugh Segal, urging the study of a guaranteed income as a replacement for the myriad social and anti-poverty programs in Canada. Federal Conservatives seldom talk about poverty or what should be done to help the 1.3 million Canadians who fall below Statistics Canada’s low-income cut-off line. The subject got one brief sentence in last fall’s throne speech; Senate reform got a whole paragraph. But Segal, to his credit, wants to put poverty on the national agenda as well as in the campaign platforms of all federal parties in the next election.

He has asked the Senate committee on social affairs, chaired by former Toronto mayor Art Eggleton, to look at a national guaranteed annual income program and how it could work. The committee has agreed to consider the idea.

The need for a new approach to fighting poverty is obvious, Segal told the committee this week. Over the past 30 years, the percentage of poor Canadians hasn’t budged; it remains fixed at between 10 and 11 per cent of the population, even though governments spend more than $130 billion annually on social payments to individuals.

“If the social welfare business of Canada had been in the private sector, it would have long ago been declared bankrupt,” says Segal.

How would a guaranteed annual income work? It would replace all existing social programs like Employment Insurance and welfare and be implemented through the income tax system, with rebates for low-income Canadians, much the same as the existing GST tax credit.

Critics argue the program would be far too expensive and would in effect be paying people not to work. As well, the one-size-fits-all approach of a guaranteed annual income would overlook the specific needs of the disabled, seniors and children.

But Segal counters that a guaranteed annual income would remove the disincentives to work in the existing welfare system, which penalizes welfare recipients who take part-time jobs. As well, “it would be a mark of civility and humanity,”Segal told the committee. “We can also affirm that we will not tolerate entire generations with their nose pressed to the window of a society they cannot afford to join.”

While there may be practical difficulties involved in implementing a guaranteed annual income, it ought to be part of the debate on poverty in this country. And Segal deserves praise for bringing it up.

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