If Ontario won’t see sense, Ottawa should save the basic income pilot

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials
Aug. 11, 2018.   By

Promise made. Promise broken. In honour of Premier Doug Ford’s mantra on the campaign pledges he has kept, it’s worth examining a vow that was so easily dismissed.

Ontario is almost halfway into an innovative three-year experiment, created by the previous Liberal government, to see if providing more money to impoverished people will improve their job prospects, health and quality of life.

It seemed worthwhile to the Progressive Conservatives just a few months ago because the party supported the basic income pilot project on the campaign trail.

“We are looking forward to seeing the results,” a PC party spokesperson told the Star’s Laurie Monsebraaten.

When pressed in an email exchange on concerns that the Tories would cancel it, Melissa Lantsman doubled down: “Nope, as mentioned we look forward to seeing the results.” Promise made.

Ontario’s basic income pilot provides up to $17,000 a year for an individual — that’s just over $1,400 a month and roughly double what welfare provides. For a couple, it’s up to $24,000 a year.

It’s possible that this project, costing $50 million a year, will actually save money by reducing health-care costs, enabling people to improve their education and ultimately get decent jobs, so they won’t need ongoing government support.

But the fledgling Ford government has cancelled the program before we can find out. Promise broken.

It’s hard to say what caused the change of heart. Since coming to power the Ford government has been in a breaking mood. They’ve gone after everything with a Liberal stamp on it from green energy contracts to police oversight.

But, for years, the biggest force behind trying a basic income in Canada has been Hugh Segal, a former Conservative senator.

So the Ford government’s decision to cancel this hasn’t just produced outrage in New Democrat and Liberal circles, but ones closer to home. Segal, who helped design this program operating around Hamilton, Thunder Bay and Lindsay, has lambasted the Tories for their decision.

The Ford government itself barely seems to know why it decided to kill the pilot.

In fact, the reasons given for the broken promise grow more absurd with every sitting of the legislature.

A week ago, the new Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Lisa MacLeod called the broken promise “fake news.

She called it bad policy. She said it created a “disincentive” to work. This, of course, ignores the fact that almost three quarters of those in the basic income pilot have jobs, simply not ones that lift them out of crushing poverty.

This past Tuesday, back from a long summer weekend when the premier’s focus lingered on the importance of government policies to enable “buck-a-beer,” MacLeod’s struggle for consistency continued.

She justified the cancellation by calling it a “complicated research project that was failing — plain and simple.” Given that the results aren’t in, it’s hard to see how she could jump to that conclusion.

Still, MacLeod wasn’t done. A few minutes later, she blamed the cancellation on the $150 million three-year cost — a figure published long before the Tories made the campaign pledge to keep the pilot going.

The Ford government should reconsider its decision. There are 4,000 people who signed up for this government program in good faith and shouldn’t have their lives thrown into turmoil because a new party is in power.

People who are enrolled in post-secondary education — to improve their job prospects — will be forced to cancel. And others who are just starting to emerge from the depression that accompanies extreme poverty are being forced back down.

But it’s not just a promise to them that Ford is breaking. It’s also a broken promise to the nearly one million Ontarians on social assistance who might benefit from lessons learned in a completed study.

And other provinces and countries are also watching. That’s why the federal government should step in and take over the remaining months of the basic income program if the Ford government insists on ending the pilot.

From a policy perspective, too much time has been invested into this project to let it all go to waste. Provinces like British Columbia, where a feasibility study started a month ago, had been eagerly awaiting Ontario’s data. Now, proponents justifiably worry that the Tories’ skepticism will spread across the country, diminishing B.C.’s efforts to study and ultimately improve anti-poverty programs.

As chair of the Basic Income Canada Network Sheila Regehr says, Ottawa has “an obligation to make income security work better for all Canadians.” She rightly points out that Ottawa’s support to see this pilot to its conclusion in 2020 would provide conclusive reasons to either support or dismiss the idea of a national basic income program.

The idea of providing a basic income, giving people the freedom to decide how to spend government money, has been discussed for years by people of all political stripes. The current social assistance system is generally agreed to be a bureaucratic nightmare that practically seems designed to hold people down rather than help them get back on their feet — and stay there.

Whatever the reason, the Ontario government has bungled this file, big time. The federal government should be prepared to make it right, in the name of good government policy.

https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2018/08/11/if-ontario-wont-see-sense-ottawa-should-save-the-basic-income-pilot.html

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