New poll shows surprising support for anti-poverty plan
TheStar.com – opinion – Canadians give backing for a guaranteed annual income to fight poverty.
Dec 11 2013. By: Bob Hepburn, Politics
For decades now, the percentage of Canadians living in poverty has barely budged despite massive government spending on social programs aimed at helping the poor, the disabled, seniors and children.
Today, about 10 per cent of Canadians live in poverty. That figure is even higher in some major cities, such as Toronto where the number of children living below the line is nearly 25 per cent.
Those shocking figures aren’t likely to improve — and indeed may worsen — in coming years as Ottawa continues to hack away at our thinning social safety net.
“From the unemployed to low-income families and poor seniors, more people than ever are struggling with grim choices as they try to cope in the leaner, meaner Canada presided over by Prime Minister Stephen Harper,” wrote reporter Les Whittington of the Star’s Ottawa bureau in a ground-breaking three-part series this week on the erosion of Canada’s social programs.
The series prompts the question: Is it really possible to have a poverty-free Canada?
For many experts, the answer is a clear yes, and the best way to reach that goal is through a guaranteed annual income.
It’s a radical idea that to date has been largely dismissed by government leaders as too costly, too difficult to implement and lacking in public support.
Because of the perception that voters don’t generally like the idea, few politicians bother even to think about such a program, let alone come out in support of it.
The survey showed more Canadians like the idea than oppose it.
The findings are important because it’s the first time a national poll has ever asked Canadians what they think of the idea of providing everyone with a guaranteed income.
Such a program “is often dismissed as giving free money to people who won’t work,” said Keith Neuman, executive director of the Environics Institute for Survey Research, which conducted the poll earlier this fall for the Montreal-based Trudeau Foundation.
Neuman said the results suggest there’s a “potential foundation for building public support for it (guaranteed income) by some bold government,” especially if it was accompanied by the elimination of other programs.
A guaranteed annual income is a single, cash payment that would replace all current social programs, such as welfare and employment insurance.
It would create a minimum income below which no Canadian would fall. Statistics Canada now sets a “low-income line” at about $22,200 for a single person and $47,000 for a family with three children.
Proponents, such as Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, argue such a plan wouldn’t cost Ottawa more money because it would get the needed dollars from other programs that would be killed. Also, they contend the idea would actually encourage people to work because it would eliminate provisions in the current welfare system that penalize the poor who take very low-paying or part-time jobs.
The poll found 46 per cent of Canadians strongly (19 per cent) or somewhat (27 per cent) favour such a policy. Another 42 per cent said they strongly (25 per cent) or somewhat (17 per cent) oppose the idea. About 10 per cent said it would depend on how such a program was actually implemented or had no opinion.
Support was highest in Quebec at 55 per cent and lowest in Alberta at 38 per cent. A majority of Canadians with household incomes under $100,000 and those with no post-secondary education also backed the idea while support was lowest (38 per cent) amongst Canadians earning more than $100,000.
To date, no major national political party has embraced the idea of a guaranteed income, although all talk vaguely about the need to study it more closely just like any other policy option.
Clearly we are in an era when our politicians are more wary than brave, afraid to champion new programs for fear of upsetting voters whose minds are focused only on cutting taxes.
As Keith Neuman says, it would require a bold government to make the guaranteed income a reality.
Given the poll results though, the idea could be a winner for the political party with the courage to make it a serious part of the debate on tackling poverty in our country.
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