TORONTO — As anti-poverty advocates denounced the Ontario government's decision to scrap a basic income pilot project, the province defended the move Wednesday by suggesting the program discouraged participants from finding work.
Though the Progressive Conservatives had promised to preserve the pilot project, Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod said the government reversed course after hearing from ministry staff that the program didn't help people become "independent contributors to the economy."
"It really is a disincentive to get people back on track," she said Wednesday.
"When you're encouraging people to accept money without strings attached, it really doesn't send the message that I think our ministry and our government wants to send. We want to get people back on track and be productive members of society where that's possible."
A source involved in the pilot, however, said it had not been active long enough to generate the data required to gauge its success.
The government announced Tuesday it was "winding down" the project and cutting a planned three per cent increase in social assistance to 1.5 per cent — the first steps in its plan to revamp the social assistance system.
The basic income pilot project, which launched last year and was set to run for three years, provided payments to 4,000 low-income people in communities including Hamilton, Brantford, Thunder Bay and Lindsay. Single participants receive up to $16,989 a year while couples receive up to $24,027, less 50 per cent of any earned income.
Statistics released by the previous government showed 2/3 of those enrolled had a job.
News of the project's cancellation stunned anti-poverty groups and those who received support through the initiative, some of whom said they'd be left scrambling to make up for income they had counted on in making future plans.
Jody Dean, a Hamilton resident who participated in the program, said the financial stability granted by the project allowed her to go back to school part-time and to buy parking passes to the hospital where one of her three children receives care.
It also relieved a lot of the stress that comes from struggling to make ends meet, she said.
"I knew it was coming every month," she said.
Now, the family will have to go back to living day-to-day, Dean said, adding she won't be able to enroll in fall classes.
She called the minister's comments "ridiculous," saying everyone she knows on the program has done better because of it.
"I know several girls that are working poor who have walked to work because they couldn't afford the bus. Did they quit their jobs because they got basic income? Hell no," she said. "Another is still working her job but now it allows her the freedom to take the bus instead of walking an hour and a half. She may lose her housing now."
Participants in the program received an email Wednesday saying their payments would continue through August but got no further details about how the project would be phased out, said Tom Cooper, director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction.
"It's reprehensible, reprehensibly irresponsible to announce the end of the pilot without thinking those things through about how they're going to wind up the program and how they are going to support people," he said.
"This is the government taking a political course of action without thinking things through the ramifications (for) these real people who have huge stresses in their lives now."
The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, which had been critical of the project, said cancelling it only a year in "demonstrates a reckless disregard for the lives of nearly 4,000 people...who planned their lives on the assurance of having a set income for three years."
The group predicted the government's pledge to reform social assistance was nothing but a thinly veiled return to cuts brought in by former Tory premier Mike Harris, and vowed to oppose what it called Premier Doug Ford's "war on the poor."
The New Democrats and the Liberals also suggested the governing Tories would erode supports for low-income residents.
NDP legislator Lisa Gretzky, the party's social services critic, said the government had pulled the rug out from under vulnerable Ontarians and would likely continue to do so.
"There's nothing compassionate about cutting planned increases to assistance rates, and cancelling the universal basic income pilot shows that this government has no interest in making progress when it comes to improving the social supports that many Ontarians depend on," she said in a statement.
Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser said the Tories had done nothing but tear things down and would continue to do so.
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner, meanwhile, said the basic income program had previously been touted by conservative economists, who saw it as a small-government solution to help people out of poverty.
Advocates for basic income initiatives said such programs are more effective in lifting people out of poverty than social assistance and require less bureaucracy to run.
Sheila Regehr, chair of the Basic Income Canada Network, said demographic groups such as seniors and parents with young children receive support that follows the basic income model, with better outcomes than social assistance.
Basic income programs give people "the ability to have some security, to have some autonomy, to have the feeling that you're in control, that you are making decisions that are best for your life, not some bureaucracy that thinks it knows best," she said.
"It's not just about money, it's about security," she said. "It's knowing that no matter what else happens in life, you've got something that helps you deal with that."
Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press