As a former minister of community and social services, I was absolutely delighted with Premier Wynne’s recent announcement of a pilot project to test the idea of a basic income.
Although I held the post for less than two years, it was long enough to know that Ontario’s social assistance system is broken. Its low benefit levels combined with a Byzantine set of rules and regulations seems more likely to hold people back than support them.
The idea of a basic income, where the government ensures a minimum level of earnings for everyone in the province facing poverty — about $17,000 for a single person under the pilot — has much more appeal. Gone are the complex rules while its wide availability, to both those on social assistance as well as a wage top-up to the working poor, extends help to all of Ontario’s struggling citizens.
Despite the fanfare and goodwill, selling the idea to the Ontario voters is going to be tough.
Why? Because there is absolutely no consensus in this province as to why we support the poor.
Think about it: What is the main goal of our social assistance programs? Are they designed to support the most marginalized in our society — the homeless person sleeping on a grate or the severely disabled person unable to work? Or are these programs intended to help those experiencing a difficult patch get back on their feet?
Most would probably say both — but do they really mean it?
If social programs are about ensuring a basic level of subsistence, then why are rates so obscenely low (about $700 a month for a single person on Ontario Works)? Why would every former community and social services minister tell you that there is little public appetite to increase them? Why did many Ontarians cheer when Mike Harris significantly cut them in the early 1990s?
And be honest: What would you really think if you heard that almost $17,000 of your hard-earned tax dollars was going to someone who chose to sit at home all day long?
So maybe it’s about getting people back on their feet? But here again, what exactly does this mean? For most Ontarians it probably means getting a job — any job. Which probably explains why our social assistance programs tend to force recipients to take the first available job that comes along, no matter how horrible or dead-end, and gives them little flexibility to explore different employment paths or wait for better opportunities.
Whether we like it or not, our society tends to see the poor as “deserving” or “undeserving,” depending on their willingness to work right now.
If that is the prevailing attitude, the basic income pilot could be a flop. Although it is true that some participants will find new or better employment, this won’t always be the case. Some may put aside the search for work and focus on other aspects of their lives or simply enjoy a better standard of living. Some may actually leave the workforce to wait for better opportunities or care for children or elderly parents.
Whether these situations are the minority or not, critics will use them to declare the pilot a failure. Commentators, such as the Fraser Institute’s Charles Lammam, who characterized the pilot as a case of the government paying “able bodied people in Ontario not to work” and encouraging “dependency on government,” will offer a big “I told you so.”
For us to measure the true success of the pilot we need to start thinking about poverty differently. Instead of starting with employment, why don’t we begin with the dignity of our fellow human beings?
Is it appropriate that a province as wealthy as Ontario allows some of its citizens to live in abject poverty — unable to properly feed, clothe or house themselves to the point that their health suffers? What does it say about us that so many of our poorest feel unwelcome in the mainstream of our society?
What if we identified poverty with these issues? What if we used the pilot results to measure whether offering better the poor an adequate basic income created happier, healthier, safer and more cohesive communities?
In fairness, this appears to be the government’s intention. It has described the ultimate success of the pilot based on measures such as better food security; the reduction of stress and anxiety; better physical and mental health outcomes and housing stability; with employment and labour market participation fairly far down the list.
Unfortunately that is not the way that most Ontarians see the issue.
In fact, I would argue that those involved in implementing the pilot have two tasks before them. As well as ensuring that it is properly implemented and evaluated, they need to help Ontarians understand that the starting point of our fight against poverty can’t be about a job at any cost. It has to be about human dignity.
John Milloy is a former MPP and Ontario Liberal cabinet minister currently serving as the co-director of the Centre for Public Ethics and assistant professor of public ethics at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, and the inaugural practitioner in residence in Wilfrid Laurier University’s Political Science department. He is also a lecturer in the University of Waterloo’s Master of Public Service Program. John can be reached at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @John_Milloy. This column was originally published in the online publication QP Briefing.