Basic income is coming to Ontario: now what?

Posted on October 7, 2016 in Social Security Debates – Opinion/Commentary – Basic income on its own, however designed, will not be enough to eliminate poverty or achieve the other objectives its proponents are pursuing

This month, the Ontario government is expected to release a report by former Senator Hugh Segal mapping the way toward a basic income pilot project and setting the stage for consultations with Ontarians.

The Ontario government defines basic income as “a payment to eligible families or individuals that ensures a minimum level of income.” The pilot is intended “to test the growing view that a basic income could help deliver income support more efficiently, while improving health, employment and housing outcomes for Ontarians.”

From the outset, the idea of a basic income has been mired in controversy in large part because it exposes fundamental differences in our views of justice, freedom, the balance between collective and individual rights and responsibilities, and the role of government.

The idea of an unconditional income guarantee has won renewed favour from proponents across the ideological spectrum, but that also means advocates hold very different views of what a basic income should look like, how generous it should be, whether it should be targeted or universal, and how it should be paid for.

For the province, it will be essential to be clear on the objectives of this experiment and on the bottom line: What are the criteria for measuring success? Is this first and foremost about social justice or about cost saving?

The growing interest in basic income reflects, at least in part, a recognition that the evolution of our welfare state has not kept pace with demographic and economic change and the transformation of our labour market: the impact of technological change on work, the instability of the labour market, and the rise of income inequality, which privileges a few at the expense of the many.

Over the last few decades, Canadian policy makers seem to have viewed the welfare state largely as a “cost,” a threat to balanced budgets and fiscal health. While many countries were testing new social models, our focus was on keeping benefits low, targeting more narrowly, privatizing delivery where possible, and lowering public expectations.

Here’s the challenge: will basic income be a program within the current austerity frame designed to reduce costs and government’s footprint, or does it represent an alternative to that frame, an objective or set of objectives for transforming our welfare state and reinvesting in social justice and greater equality?

A new report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives looks at eight different ways to deliver a basic income and finds that the most effective and affordable option would be through a federal negative income tax that shrinks in value as incomes rise.

That would make it highly targeted to lower income individuals. It would be unconditional as well as easily and efficiently delivered. But the report also makes clear that basic income on its own, however designed, will not be enough to eliminate poverty or achieve the other objectives its proponents are pursuing.

Critics rightly argue that basic income is no magic bullet, that indeed there are no magic bullets. The history of the idea of basic income shows it’s no passing fad, but translating it into action can easily get mired in the muck of consultations, delays, poor execution or, most likely, inadequate funding.

That said, the Ontario experiment may be just the kind of jolt we need to break the mould; an important opportunity to reimagine the future of social and labour market policy. It gives us a chance to see how income provided unconditionally could give poor Ontarians greater autonomy and the breathing room to find their way out of poverty.

But more than that, it allows us to ask how our tax and transfer system, social services, and labour policies can be made to work together to achieve greater equity and social justice in these changing times.

The basic income experiment forces us to ask the right questions: how do we ensure all Canadians have access to the essentials, that all can live in dignity regardless of job status, that all have sufficient income so none need live in poverty?

Thinking of basic income in those terms, less as a single program and more as a set of objectives for all governments, changes the frame, shifts expectations and gives us a chance to address issues that have been ignored for too long, from the inadequacy and inefficiency of social assistance to how best to ensure a living wage.

In the end, Ontario cannot answer these questions alone. All governments will have to be at the table. But Ontario has an opportunity to lead.

Alex Himelfarb is a former clerk to the Privy Council and is chair of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Ontario Advisory Board. Trish Hennessy is director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Ontario office. They are co-editors of Basic Income: Rethinking Social Policy, available at

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This entry was posted on Friday, October 7th, 2016 at 4:34 pm and is filed under Social Security Debates. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

3 Responses to “Basic income is coming to Ontario: now what?”

  1. Lindsay says:

    **** edit: for all low-income qualifiers in Canada.

  2. Lindsay says:

    Dear editor,

    This article discussed the potential of Basic Income (BI) for all Canadians. The issues of poverty, low income and social exclusion appear to be placed higher on the agenda of governments.

    Today’s labour markets increasingly offer unstable/contracted out jobs with poverty level wages, BI may combat some of these inequalities. Mentioned in the article “income provided unconditionally gives poor Ontarians greater autonomy and a way find their way out of poverty.” It is important to note that BI does not substitute for measures to address job quality, such as strengthening minimum wages and labour standards legislation and ensuring effective forms of collective representation in workplaces.

  3. The Basic Income Project that is being introduced to Ontarians sounds like it could be a great starting point that will benefit people of Ontario. The idea of the Basic Income Project seems to benefit Ontario’s citizens financially by providing Ontarians that are living at or below the poverty line an opportunity to live within their means. I can see this pilot project helping those who struggle financially in our society. This policy will assist those who are in a lower socioeconomic status and are having trouble keeping up with those who are more financially secure. The government has stated that welfare is too costly to maintain so by increasing the basic amount a person can earn should help alleviate the stress on the welfare system. If people can earn more money at their jobs this should help them “improve their health, employment and housing outcomes for Ontarians.” The policy appears to be a step in the right direction for those who are struggling across Ontario.

    However, there are still some issues with this program from what I can see. The main issue is the criteria for this pilot; just who is being affected by this pilot? Is everyone going to be benefitted by this pilot? The answers to these questions are unclear. The policy will also not fix the poverty issue affecting Ontarians; as stated in the article there is no magic bullet that can fix this issue.

    With all that said I do believe that the government of Ontario is taking a step in the right direction. I believe that this is a great way to help those who do not fall under the conditions to receive benefits from welfare programs and greatly assist those who are using social welfare.


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