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Canadian money. // Photo: KMR Photography/flickr

Canadian money. // Photo: KMR Photography/flickr

Op-Ed: Ontario’s basic income cut should bother Canadians

August 9, 2018 — 

The following is an op-ed from U of M law professor Lorna Turnbull that originally ran in the Winnipeg Free Press on Aug. 9, 2018:

Ontario’s decision to cut the basic income pilot study should trouble all Canadians.

Canada has a problem with money — specifically, who has it and who doesn’t — and our current methods of making sure our fellow Canadians who don’t have it are OK are not working. The experiment might have helped us to understand new ways to support those among us who end up living on low incomes, and that would be good for us all.

Ontario’s Basic Income Pilot study began in April 2017, to test a guaranteed basic income. The program enrolled more than 4,000 people who live on less than $34,000 individually or $48,000 as a couple. They included people working, going to school or living on financial assistance. For three years, single participants were to receive $16,989 annually and couples were to receive $24,027.

Basic income is an idea that enjoys support across the political spectrum. It is an idea whose time may have come as we face more economic shocks that make more among us vulnerable, and as the gap between those of us with the most money and those with the least continues to grow.

But now, Ontario’s new government has announced that it will cut the pilot study. Not only is this inhumane to those who agreed to participate in this important research, but it will deprive us all, in Ontario and beyond, of the opportunity to learn how to do better.

Canada is currently undergoing its third Universal Period Review under the United Nations Human Rights Council. Members of the Department of Canadian Heritage have been touring the country seeking input from civil society and Indigenous communities on the recommendations that have been made by UN members.

Many of those recommendations relate to ensuring that all Canadians have access to the basics of life, those that require a minimum level of economic security, such as access to safe housing and food, as well as to health care, education and most importantly, basic human dignity.

In April of this year, the parliamentary budget officer released a report suggesting that a national basic income based on the Ontario model would have a net cost of about $43 billion over five years. That figure does not include the savings that would also be available at the provincial level. Here in Manitoba, my colleague Evelyn Forget has conducted up-to-date analyses of the results of the “Mincome” experiments in the 1970s and has found that hospitalizations for accidental injuries and mental health issues decreased by 8.5 per cent for those receiving Mincome payments.

Imagine those costs savings, and that is just a start. Further savings in other aspects of health as well as other systems, such as the child welfare and justice systems are also predicted to follow.

In Ontario, early results indicate that most participants are able to work and earn income without facing the “welfare wall” of the 100 per cent clawback that happens to those receiving social assistance who try to work. This allows recipients to plan for a future that reaches beyond the struggle to survive today. Some are making plans to go back to school, others are able to address long-standing health issues, and accounts suggest that most are feeling more optimistic about their future. Or they were, until recently.

Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees all Canadians a right to equality, yet poverty disproportionately affects women, children and older adults, Indigenous Peoples and persons with disabilities.

When one government begins a study to find more effective and less costly ways to address poverty and then a new government brutally cuts it off, we are not only hurting the people who are receiving the basic income, we are hurting all Canadians living in poverty who might have benefited from policy innovations that could have flowed from the results of the Ontario pilot.

Are we a nation that puts political ideology ahead of reason and evidence, that puts the wants of the one per cent ahead of the needs of the 10 per cent among us who live below the poverty line?

Both Manitoba’s provincial government and the federal government are in the process of developing poverty-reduction strategies, so let us hope not.

If we want to take care of our neighbours and ourselves, we can do it.

All we need is the will.

Lorna A. Turnbull is a professor of law at the University of Manitoba and the chairwoman of Basic Income Manitoba/Revenu de Base Manitoba.

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