Basic income pilots have all-party support

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

During the countdown to the provincial election, Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford often has missed the mark. He has promised billions in new spending, unrealistically coupled with reducing tax revenue and magically balancing the budget. He has failed to grasp the limits on the premier’s authority to fire the head of Hydro One, or opt out of a carbon tax framework. And mounting nomination controversies threaten to engulf the campaign.

But there’s still an area where the leader hasn’t blundered. According to spokesperson Melissa Lantsman, a PC government would support the guaranteed income pilot project. And Doug Ford hasn’t contradicted her.

Ontario launched a three-year pilot project last April to test a simple idea: If you replace social assistance with a guaranteed basic income, can it lift people out of poverty?

No-strings-attached income allows recipients to work without having their benefits clawed back. Recipients who earn too much, even temporarily, can hit the “welfare wall” – jeopardizing daycare and other subsidies – a significant barrier to getting off social assistance. Guaranteed income also gives recipients the freedom to upgrade their skills without constantly defending their benefits eligibility.

Pilot projects underway in Hamilton, Lindsay and Thunder Bay offer single participants up to $17,000 a year, less half of any income they earn; couples receive $24,000. People with disabilities are eligible for an added $6,000. The three-year pilots will measure outcomes including physical and mental health, housing stability, food security, education and employment.

Opposition to guaranteed income is chiefly ideological. Some people just don’t like the idea of paying people to “do nothing” while others toil at low-wage jobs, or believe recipients won’t be motivated to find work. But these suppositions aren’t rooted in evidence, according to former Sen. Hugh Segal, whose thoughtfully researched recommendations informed the Ontario project.

The election has predictably opened a window for opponents to call on a new government to scrap the pilot. “Paying some people tens of thousands of dollars not to work while continuing to increase taxes for the rest of us makes no sense,” writes Christine Van Geyn, Ontario director of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation.

Indeed, the winds have changed in Finland, which recently announced it will not renew a two-year pilot project set to expire in December. A closely watched experiment in universal basic income has been criticized for its low sample size (2,000 adults) and low wages.

But pulling the plug in Ontario would be a terrible mistake. The data from these pilots in three communities could well demonstrate how investing in guaranteed income not only helps people get back to work, but improves their lives in ways that impact the provincial budget.

An abandoned project in Dauphin, Man., in the 1970s, showed promising results. Recovered data on the “Mincome” experiment included reduced hospitalizations, and dramatically fewer mental-health hospitalizations. Teens stayed in school longer. Importantly, they found no meaningful reduction in workforce participation, except among two significant groups: new mothers and teenaged boys who continued their education.

The NDP and Green Party platforms both support the pilot project. Fighting poverty requires action, not ideology. As the clock runs out on the campaign, it’s encouraging to see the four major parties united in their willingness to wait for the evidence.


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