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Editorial: A reasonable goal

  • November 18, 2021

Fifty years is a long time for a good idea to sit on a shelf.

It was in November of 1971 that the Special Senate committee report on poverty was tabled. Chaired by Sen. David Croll, it was hailed as the most comprehensive study of the state of the poor in Canada. Croll pulled no punches in introducing the report: “Poverty is the great social issue of our time. ... The poor do not choose poverty. It is at once their affliction and our national shame. ... No nation can achieve true greatness if it lacks the courage and determination to undertake the surgery necessary to remove the cancer of poverty from its body politic.”

The centrepiece of the report’s recommendations was a “guaranteed annual income” to replace the social welfare system that had failed make a difference for the estimated 20 per cent of Canadians living below the poverty line.

Croll’s idea was applying a negative income tax “on a uniform, national basis, based on need.”

“Incorporated in it would be a work incentive to ensure that those who work will receive and keep more income than those who do not, the plan to be financed and administered by the federal government making uniform cash payments to all resident Canadians in economic need,” Croll said in a speech to the Empire Club. “Payments would vary by family size and need and would establish a floor level below which no family unit would be permitted to fall. The plan has its essential ingredient: income, maintenance, work incentive.”

The plan went nowhere. Too expensive, the critics said. Can’t be done. Of course, the same was once said about old age security and universal health care.

The sad truth is that we haven’t cared enough to really solve poverty in this country. Croll said as much in his report: “In our attitudes toward the poor we have been passionately wrong with a high degree of consistency. Good intentions alone have never lightened the burden of poverty. The ugly subculture of poverty has become a way of life for generations of Canadians who are victims of frustration, despair and apathy.”

There were about five million Canadians living in poverty at the time of Croll’s report. That number has dropped below four million today, but it stubbornly persists among our most vulnerable: seniors, the disabled, single parents and the Indigenous. Most shocking, almost half of Indigenous children live in poverty.

Will a guaranteed income work? Early results were encouraging from a program in Manitoba in the early 1970s, and also from a basic income pilot project in Ontario in 2018. Both programs were killed as soon as there was a change in government,  so we’ve never a chance to understand the long-term impact.

Pope Francis has long been a proponent of a basic income “so that everyone in the world may have access to the most basic necessities of life.”

It’s a reasonable goal, one that, as a just and fair society, we must pursue. David Croll understood that 50 years ago. His idea doesn’t deserve to be on a shelf.

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