Don’t make ‘basic income’ an excuse for inaction
TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials – Government cannot set up a pilot plan and then turn away. The vision of “basic income” cannot serve as an excuse for inaction in the here and now.
April 18, 2017. By
Who can’t feel for Tim Kay, the 53-year-old man whose story was recounted in Tuesday’s Star as part of an explanation of the Ontario government’s plan to test out a no-strings-attached “basic income” program?
After working for years in low-paid jobs and plagued by ill health, Kay ended up relying on support from Ontario’s basic welfare program, which pays single people a maximum of just over $700 a month. Based on a discussion paper last fall, the province’s proposed basic income plan could double that to $1,415.
That would be a boon to Kay and the many thousands of Ontarians who depend on existing social welfare programs that effectively trap them in perpetual poverty. “Basic income” is being hailed as a way of breaking that cycle by guaranteeing higher minimum payments without subjecting recipients to the petty humiliations that come with complying with cumbersome welfare rules.
Proponents of such basic income schemes have the wind on their sails right now. For many, it’s seen as a way of both ending poverty and providing supports for those struggling with the new-economy world of precarious employment.
If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it almost certainly is. We won’t know exactly what model Ontario intends to test until it announces the details. But even before that it’s clear there are serious risks here as well as potential advantages.
Most obviously, it will take years to make significant change — while tens of thousands of Ontarians continue to languish in state-sanctioned poverty.
It has already been 13 months since the Wynne government announced its intention to test out a basic income plan. The architect of the pilot program, former senator Hugh Segal, proposed a three-year test plan last fall. After that, presumably, it would take a year or more to evaluate the results and design a fuller system.
Add all that up and it means a minimum of five years, almost certainly more, for the province to propose, test and implement a basic income plan. All that while thousands of people continue to eke out a bare existence on existing welfare supports.
The stark reality of that is shoddy housing, bad health, poor nutrition, social exclusion and petty crime — all the social ills that come with entrenched poverty. The government doesn’t need a five-year project to figure that out.
Right now it is just tinkering at the edges of the existing system, making minor changes to eligibility rules. It would be a tragedy if the experiment with basic income ends up being a way for government to deflect the need for urgent, significant change now.
In the longer run, “basic income” could be a game-changer — if it is designed properly. In this area, the devil really is in the details.
That’s because basic income is such a fluid concept that it could lead to a more generous, more efficient and more modern system. Or it could result in its opposite — a meaner, more constrained approach that puts public services at the mercy of the marketplace. It all depends on how it’s designed and what the ultimate goals are.
Ontario should make sure its pilot program goes in the right direction. It should set the “basic” level much higher than current welfare levels, and not penalize them for earning additional income to get above poverty levels.
It should not scrap the existing social safety net or sabotage attempts to build new services, such as a more ambitious child-care system. And it should not use a new program as an excuse to push against inequality in other ways, such as strengthening labour standards and pay levels.
Most importantly, government cannot set up a pilot plan and then turn away. The vision of “basic income” sometime in the future cannot serve as an excuse for inaction in the here and now.