Save Ontario’s basic income pilot, advocates urge Ottawa

Posted on August 4, 2018 in Social Security Policy Context – News/GTA
Aug. 3, 2018.   By

As fury mounts over the Ford government’s cancellation of Ontario’s basic income pilot project, advocates are looking for ways to salvage it, both out of compassion for participants who signed up in good faith and to learn the results.

Some are suggesting Ottawa should take up the reins. The federal government already runs income programs for seniors and children, but not for low-income working-age adults, said Sheila Regehr, chair of the Basic Income Canada Network.

“They have an obligation to make income security work better for all Canadians,” Regehr said.

If Ottawa completed Ontario’s $50-million-a-year pilot, the results would either support or dismiss the feasibility of a national basic income and align with a two-year-old Liberal Party policy to pursue the idea, she added.


Ottawa was already supporting the pilot by sharing participants’ federal tax return data with Ontario. But the federal government has not responded to the project’s demise this week.

“The design of provincial social programs is up to the provincial governments,” federal Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos’s office said in a statement.

Ontario’s pilot project was launched in April 2017 and offered 4,000 low-income residents in three communities almost $14,000 a year to individuals or $24,000 to couples, and an extra $6,000 for the disabled. At the time, all provincial party leaders supported the experiment’s quest to determine whether unconditional payments to low-income workers and people on welfare improved health, housing and educational outcomes.

After the Progressive Conservatives elected Doug Ford as their leader, a senior campaign spokesperson confirmed in writing to the Star that Ford would allow the three-year experiment to proceed if he became premier. Despite that promise, Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod axed the pilot on Tuesday, after just 15 months.

MacLeod has been vague about when the payments would stop, saying more details would be released “at a later date.”

While Regehr doesn’t think Ottawa should be bailing Ford out, “if he really refuses and will not budge, participants in this pilot shouldn’t suffer,” she said.

“And across Canada, we shouldn’t suffer the waste of this learning potential that is important to everybody in the country,” added Regehr, whose network has been advocating for a national program for more than a decade.

“The research this generates allows all provinces, and ideally Ottawa too, to make better policy.”

MacLeod said she killed the project because it isn’t sufficiently aligned with the Ford government’s focus on moving people on welfare into jobs. However, 70 per cent of participants were already working when they enrolled, but earned too little to pay rent and buy food.

For participants with jobs, the basic income was reduced by 50 cents for every dollar earned until annual incomes thresholds of about $34,000 for singles and $48,000 for couples were reached. One of the research goals was to see what happens when low-wage, precarious workers receive a financial top-up. That’s information any government concerned about vulnerable populations should value, Regehr said.

“Poverty, insecurity, precarious employment don’t stop at provincial and territorial borders,” she said. “This matters hugely. This isn’t just about Ontario.”

In addition to 4,000 people in Hamilton-Brantford, Thunder Bay and Lindsay who volunteered to receive the monthly, no-strings-attached payments — despite widespread mistrust of such government largesse — another 2,000 agreed to answer surveys as a comparison group.

“It is actually quite difficult to get 6,000 people into a study,” noted Kwame McKenzie, director of health equity at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and CEO of the Wellesley Institute.

“It is a study that has put Ontario and Canada at the forefront of thinking about an issue that has gained a lot of attention worldwide,” said McKenzie, the previous Liberal government’s research adviser on the project.

Basic income experiments are planned or are underway in Scotland, India, Kenya, Finland and Oakland, California. In Canada, B.C.’s NDP-Green coalition government has also commissioned a feasibility study.

Killing Ontario’s project before the results are known, “is a loss, no question,” McKenzie added.

When Ontario announced its intention to fund a basic income pilot in 2016, Duclos welcomed the initiative and said Ottawa would be watching.

Although Duclos was not commenting this week, federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna was on Twitter expressing her concern for participants. “We are talking about people’s lives,” McKenna tweeted, linking to a media report that said the 1,000 Hamilton participants were “sold a bill of goods by the Ford government in the election. They were lied to.”

Bob Bratina, the former Hamilton mayor and Liberal MP for Hamilton-East Stoney Creek, said he also felt for constituents who would be suffering as a result of the provincial move.

But he was noncommittal about any role Ottawa might play.

“I hadn’t thought about it . . except to say everything the provincial government does is a matter of discussion for us,” he said when asked if he thinks Ottawa should step in to complete the project.

However, he said it would be a “worthy” topic at the government’s caucus meeting in Saskatoon on Sept. 12 and 13.

Meantime, Hamilton participants and advocates are considering legal action and planning to protest at Queen’s Park next week. And in Lindsay, where 2,000 residents were signed up for the program, a rally is scheduled at the local library.

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