Opinions 08/02/2018

Last week, Ontario was a world leader in the field of poverty reduction, exploring through a pilot project the impacts of a basic income on the lives of people living in poverty. This week, the recipients of the basic income are reeling from the loss of this innovative program, which was cut on Tuesday by the PC government, despite their promise to continue it.

The pilot brought nearly 4,000 Ontarians in five communities up to a minimum annual income of $16,989, 75 per cent of Statistics Canada’s low income measure and fully double welfare rates for a single person.

For those who were promised this support, the cancellation announcement amounts to nothing less than a disaster. Participants who had planned their lives around three years on the program will see their incomes slashed in half as they return to a crippling and stigmatizing social assistance system.

The situation is exacerbated by the accompanying announcement that a scheduled three per cent increase to social assistance rates is being cut to 1.5 per cent. A single person on Ontario Works will have their monthly income increase from $721 to just $732 - a paltry sum that in many cities in the province doesn’t even cover rent. Consider that in Toronto, the average rent for a bachelor apartment is $962.

Ontario’s basic income pilot was important as it was the first Canadian basic income experiment since Manitoba’s MINCOME project in the 1970s. One of that program’s most notable outcomes found an 8.5 per cent reduction in hospitalizations. This alone could save the province billions, which, as former Conservative Senator and architect of Ontario’s basic income pilot Hugh Segal raised in a trenchant op-ed in The Globe and Mail, raises serious questions about this government’s promise to end hallway medicine. (See our webinar on basic income with Hugh Segal here.)

Living in poverty is terrible for one’s health and leads to increased rates of chronic diseases and early mortality. One reason for this is that people on low incomes often struggle to put healthy food on the table. This is a problem for us all as it weighs down our already overburdened health care system: health care costs for people living in severe food insecurity are more than double those for the food secure. Indeed, the public cost of poverty in Ontario is $10.4 billion to $13.1 billion a year.

So if cutting the pilot doesn’t make sense for the participants or for Ontarian taxpayers, then why was it done? It’s difficult to see this decision as based on anything but an ideology that vilifies people living in poverty. This raises the question of what kind of society we want to live in. Do we want to see the most vulnerable Ontarians as efficiencies to be cut? Or do we want to create an inclusive society in which we all have equal opportunity to thrive? For those of us who believe in equity, the time has come to fight for it.