Ontario’s ‘basic income’ pilot helps defuse political anger that stems from economic exclusion

NationalPost.com – Full Comment
April 27, 2017.   HUGH SEGAL

A sense of balance and decency should never be taken for granted in any society. Critical pillars of democratic nations—such as the rule of law, presumption of innocence, and voluntary compliance—depend on perceptions of fairness and a reasonable sense of opportunity across the population as a whole, not just among those who are better off.

As a lifelong conservative, I have never believed that the state should try to legislate equality of outcomes: too much freedom would be threatened and too much expense wasted. But equality of opportunity is a compelling imperative in any democracy. Figuring out how to level the playing field is the essence of politics at its best. Old shibboleths like “the poor are always with us,” or “if you pay someone to do nothing, they will do nothing,” are deeply condescending notions rooted in low expectations about impoverished people. Being complacent about ongoing poverty—when we know how toxic it is to health, education, and life outcomes—is a serious abdication of political and moral responsibility. There is little basis in fact to the notion that a minimum income floor beneath which no one can fall destroys the desire to do better.

There is little basis to the notion that a minimum income floor beneath which no one can fall destroys the desire to do better.

Canada’s existing welfare programs are far too limited. In Ontario, for example, a single adult receives payouts equal to about 45 percent of the poverty line, or approximately $9,000. Existing programs also include dehumanizing micro-eligibility requirements that dilute self-respect, discourage work, and frustrate hardworking caseworkers. They trap people in poverty rather than providing them with a bridge to the economic mainstream. A broader economic mainstream is vital to a productive economy.

This is why Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, Social Services Minister Helena Jaczek, and Housing Minister Chris Ballard deserve credit for the Basic Income Pilot Project they announced on Monday. The pilot project will result in 4,000 Ontarians in three very different regions and communities receiving income equal to approximately 75 per cent of the poverty line, or $17,000 (in the case of a single adult), less 50 per cent of any earned income. It will reveal whether there is a better way for alleviating poverty than existing welfare entitlements and, if so, what the comparative costs and benefits would be of breaking out of the old ineffective patterns. It is unlikely to be perfect, but it will open up a broad range of new options and disrupt existing complacency about poverty challenges.

There are pressing political reasons for addressing these issues as well. As we have seen with Brexit in the United Kingdom, and the results of the United States election, the cost of economic exclusion can be political anger. The world has seen this cycle before. “Path dependency” is an approach to governing that sees little change in how things are done, even when the results are uninspiring. Some governments are glad to go back and forth for time immemorial, rather than trying something new. It has never mattered more that politicians find the energy and courage to try bold initiatives, especially on an issue as significant as poverty.

Ontario’s Basic Income pilot shows this kind of energy. We may also soon see other provinces experimenting with similar projects. Prince Edward Island has an all-party consensus to implement a basic income scheme, and Quebec is also moving in this direction. Ontario’s leadership on this file may be contagious, and is profoundly encouraging. We must work to create a society in which opportunity is not only within the reach of the well off.

National Post

Hugh Segal is the Master of Massey College and a longtime proponent of Basic Income. He prepared a Discussion Paper on a Basic Income Pilot for the Ontario government, which was published in November 2016.

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