Toronto residents pin hopes on basic income
TheStar.com – News/GTA – Man who ended up on the streets says new pilot project to fight poverty could have made a huge difference to his life if it had been in place when he lost his job.
April 18, 2017. By
As Ontario gears up to launch a basic income pilot project, described as a simpler, more effective way to fight poverty than welfare and other supports, the Star spoke to three Torontonians struggling to get by to see how they would spend the no-strings-attached payment.
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Tim Kay quit school when he was 16 to work in his father’s window installing business. He spent the next 34 years working in the industry for various companies until his body gave out and he lost his job.
“I couldn’t climb a ladder anymore. I would just get too winded,” says the 53-year-old Scarborough man who has since been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart trouble. “I can’t even climb stairs anymore. My doctor tells me not to.”
Failing health and job loss was the beginning of Kay’s downward spiral to the streets. Homeless and too afraid to stay in a shelter, he spent two years couch surfing and sleeping in parks, where his breathing got worse.
Although Toronto’s Streets to Homes program helped Kay find a bachelor apartment last fall, the past three years have taken a toll. He has lost all but two bottom teeth due to numerous beatings on the streets. And he says his nerves “are shot.”
“If I had access to a basic income back then, I would have been able to afford rent,” he says. “I probably would still have all my teeth. And I wouldn’t be so sick.”
Hay is an example of a growing number of older, low-wage workers engaged in manual labour who fall into deep poverty due to lay-off, disability or ill health.
At a time when high-skilled workers with post-secondary education have difficulty finding work, job prospects for older unemployed workers like Hay are limited. Too young to qualify for federal senior’s benefits of at least $1,525 a month, Hay’s only option is welfare, which provides half that amount.
As a result, Hay constantly struggles to pay rent and buy food while his health continues to deteriorate due to the stress.
A basic income equivalent to 75 per cent of Ontario’s 2016 poverty line, as proposed in a provincial discussion paper last fall, could replace Hay’s meagre welfare cheque with a monthly payment of $1,415.
“If I had a basic income, I’d be able to live in a better neighbourhood where I’m not so afraid to go out,” he says. “I could afford toiletries, detergent to wash my clothes, all those things that cost money that I just don’t have.”
Hay has just qualified for the Ontario Disability Support Program, the province’s welfare program for people with disabilities, which provides up to $1,128 a month. But if he manages to find a part-time job, he would be able to keep just $200 before his wages are clawed back. The rent on his affordable apartment would also go up.
Former Conservative senator Hugh Segal, a long-time advocate of basic income, suggested people with disabilities on the basic income pilot should receive an additional $500 a month.
It would mean people like Hay could receive up to $1,915 a month. And depending on how the pilot project is structured, he might be able to keep any earnings on top of that.
Hay’s blue eyes widen at the prospect.
Anti-poverty activists say a basic income would fill an important gap in Ontario’s social safety net by supporting older, unemployed workers until they are eligible for more generous seniors’ benefits. They say it would cut food bank use, improve health and reduce stress and social isolation.
However, a basic income should be set at a level that lifts people out of poverty and should not come at the expense of other social supports, including job and life skills training, notes Richard Matern of Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank.
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As a child refugee from Afghanistan, Laila Rashidie was determined to get a good education and escape the low-income struggles she endured growing up in a newcomer family in North York. She excelled in school and earned three degrees, including a Master’s in Education. But since graduating in 2012, Rashidie has been able to obtain only temporary contract work, mostly in high-skill but low-pay administrative jobs.
The 29-year-old single woman is on the Toronto District School Board occasional teacher list and is trying to work enough hours to be considered for a long-term occasional contract, key to obtaining a permanent teaching job.
But after two years, she can no longer afford to wait every morning for the phone to ring with an offer to replace a teacher who is ill or otherwise unable to work that day. She has to take any job she can find to pay her rent and put food on the table.
Since she can’t afford an apartment downtown where most of the temp jobs are located, Rashidie often stays with a friend and goes back to York Region on weekends where she rents a one-bedroom unit.
“I have no career stability, no income stability or even housing stability,” she says. “I can’t wait at home for the occasional one-day teaching assignment. I need a stable income.”
Rashidie says she is not alone. Most of her peers are having similar difficulties building careers in a tight and changing employment landscape.
“A basic income would give me some stability, both mentally and emotionally,” she says. “At least I would be able to rent or share an apartment downtown, closer to transit and work. I could afford to stay on the supply teaching list. I could begin to pursue a permanent career.”
Although a basic income could provide financial stability while younger workers get established, workers’ rights advocates caution the initiative must not be used to prop up precarious work and low wages.
“Any basic income program must be accompanied by strong employment standards legislation, increased access to unionization and a minimum wage that brings people above the poverty line,” says Pam Frache, an organizer with the Workers’ Action Centre.
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Nesha Khan, 48, is a mother of five who has struggled from the day she arrived from South America in 1994 under Canada’s spousal sponsorship program.
With little formal education and low literacy skills, she had few options when her marriage broke down.
A women’s shelter helped her find subsidized housing where her current monthly rent is about $750. And in 2004 she landed a job as a short-order cook.
Today, Khan earns $12.50 an hour. But the fluctuating nature of the work means she is often laid off and has to draw employment insurance. As a result, she supports herself and four of her children on annual earnings and EI benefits of about $24,000 after taxes.
If it wasn’t for about $22,000 in child benefits and tax, she would be living in deep poverty.
But these benefits raise Khan’s annual income to $46,000, just short of the $49,000 low-income measure, or poverty line, for a family of five in Ontario. The measure is equal to half the median household income in the province, adjusted by family size.
If a basic income was set at 75 per cent of the low-income measure, Khan probably wouldn’t qualify. But if it was set at 100 per cent, she could receive about $250 a month.
This money would help pay for her daughter’s Kumon math tutoring and hip hop dance classes, Khan says. It could also help pay for hockey and basketball for her sons.
But Khan worries the extra income might push up her rent and she may end up no further ahead.
“It’s very hard,” she says. “What little money you have, you have to give away (in rent increases.) You can’t save.”
Social policy expert John Stapleton says Khan is like most low-income single parents. While provincial and federal child benefits have pulled most of these families closer to the provincial poverty line, they are still struggling, especially in Toronto where the cost of living is high.
“Khan’s case shows how a basic income doesn’t really help people who are right at the razor’s edge of poverty,” he said. “It supports the view in some circles that a basic income would have to be set a little bit above the poverty line to make a difference.”