Ottawa must pick up the ball on basic income project

Providing a basic income to everyone, with no strings attached, is a tempting idea that is gaining support in many countries struggling with the problems that arise from poverty and inequality.

In theory, it could ensure a decent living standard for millions of people while saving billions of dollars now being spent on health care, social housing, welfare and policing.

Still, there’s no guarantee such a program would work. Conservatives worry about the cost and undermining incentives to work. Many progressive-minded people fear governments might use “basic income” as a way to undermine existing social programs and distract people from issues like precarious work. Not to mention that handing out money without conditions isn’t exactly the easiest thing to sell politically.

So how to decide whether it’s an idea worth exploring? The Wynne government launched a three-year basic income pilot project in 2017 precisely to help answer that question. The findings of the $150-million project would have provided hard evidence for governments of all stripes to justify either implementing or dismissing the idea.

That was the plan, anyway. But halfway through the study the Ford government stepped in and announced it would end it next March, a year before its scheduled completion. And now the four Ontario mayors whose communities were test sites for the program are urging the federal government to pick up the ball on the project and run with it.

Ottawa should do just that, for many reasons.

First, the well-being of those who participated in the pilot project is at stake.

Ontario’s basic income pilot provides up to $17,000 a year for an individual — roughly double what basic welfare provides — and up to $24,000 for a couple.

Many of those enrolled in the program used the increased income they expected to receive for three years to rent apartments, pay off debts, go back to school or even buy transit tickets to get to job interviews. One woman said it helped her get out of the sex trade. Ending the program early jeopardizes all that.

In their letter to the federal minister of families, children and social development, Jean-Yves Duclos, the mayors of Hamilton, Brantford, Kawartha Lakes and Thunder Bay voice just that concern. “We fear that as a result of this ill-conceived provincial decision, many of the pilot participants will inevitably fall into situations of homelessness and significant financial distress through no fault of their own,” they write.

Second, as the mayors argue, it makes sense to ensure the money invested in the program so far isn’t wasted.

Ottawa should “get the value of the research” being conducted on recipients by more than 40 experts at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and McMaster University in Hamilton. Indeed, researchers around the world are waiting for results of the study.

Third, the savings potential for governments in Canada, alone, could be in the billions of dollars if the pilot shows that a basic income works — or even if it provides information to help governments create better welfare programs.

For example, Campaign 2000 estimates that the public currently spends $72 billion to $85 billion each year on services associated with child poverty, such as urgent health care, shelter costs and the criminal justice system.

Still, Ottawa hasn’t exactly jumped at the chance to save the pilot program. In fact, so far it has simply passed the ball back to Ontario. A spokesperson for Duclos just noted that designing provincial social programs is a job for the provinces.

It’s certainly not up to a Liberal federal government to clean up a mess created by Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives. But there’s just about no chance the Ford government will change its mind. And there are compelling national reasons for the federal government to step in. The issues raised by the pilot project, and the answers it will provide, have implications far beyond the boundaries of one province.

Ottawa should finance the last year of the program, as the Ontario mayors are requesting. The cost is modest and the potential benefits are enormous.

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