Susan Eagle of ISARC says the end of Ontario’s basic income project undermines trust in government. Photo by Michael Swan

Ontario winding down basic income pilot project

  • August 16, 2018

OTTAWA – Anti-poverty advocates are disappointed that Ontario’s new Conservative government intends to cancel the province’s basic income pilot project, arguing that the study is important to help reduce poverty far beyond the province.

“The Ontario pilot was an interesting and important step towards getting a basic income for everyone in Canada,” said Sheila Regehr, chair of the Basic Income Canada Network (BICN).

Despite studies in many countries, governments “don’t believe the old pilots” and the Ontario pilot project “recognized that we needed new data,” Regehr said. “This was a good step in the right direction to move this forward nationally.”

The pilot project was launched by Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government in 2016 and included 4,000 low-income participants in Hamilton, Brantford, Thunder Bay and Lindsay. The $50-million program, which was to run for three years, provided almost $17,000 for single participants and about $24,000 for a couple, and allowed them to keep 50 per cent of any additional earned income. 

“A lot of people were watching this. It wasn’t just people in Ontario, but other provincial and state governments in the United States,” said Jack Panozzo, who manages the social justice and advocacy program for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Toronto. Catholic Charities is part of the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC) that had advocated for the pilot. 

“This was an attempt to see if this was a better way of bringing people up out of poverty and avoiding the whole business of the bureaucracies of OW (Ontario Works) and ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program),” Panozzo said.

The Ontario Tories gave no indication during the recent election that they intended to discontinue the project. 

“We hope the government, on second regard, will relent and move forward with the program,” Panozzo said. “If it doesn’t, then we will never know what insight we might have gained from the outcome, in particular a way forward toward reducing the massive, bureaucratic paper jam that becomes its own formidable obstacle toward providing effective assistance to families and individuals.”

Ontario’s welfare and disability programs require a person to be destitute to qualify and, even then, the programs are inadequate, said Susan Eagle, chair of ISARC. 

“They don’t give enough to live on and if the person receives any income, a percentage is clawed back, all based on constantly providing info to the system,” she said. “It can be cut off at any time, with a simple phone call of complaint. It’s a very insecure form of income.”

A tragedy of cancelling the pilot project is that it undermines trust that participants placed in the government “to step forward and help people,” said Eagle. “It gave people a sense of stability and certainty.”

Regehr has met with several pilot participants. 

“The emotional toll this is taking on them is really profound,” she said. 

“People have registered and enrolled for school in the fall, they have signed longish-term leases and have made all kinds of future plans for things on trust that the government would be providing money to them for three years,” she said. “Anything that breaks that promise is devastating for them.”

A guaranteed basic income for all Canadians is one component of a national anti-poverty strategy, according to advocates.

“We have been engaged as much as possible with the federal government on this,” Regehr said.

Ontario’s Minister of Children, Community and Social Services Lisa MacLeod said the government cancelled the pilot because it was “a complicated research project that was failing — plain and simple” and because the previous government “promised to spend money the province didn’t have.”

“The Liberal government had difficulty signing people up. In fact, a notable number of people appear to be ineligible, either because their incomes were too high or they didn’t file their taxes,” she said in a statement. “It calls into question whether the research would even be valid.”

She said the project would be wound down in a “thoughtful, responsible way” with advance notice of a final payment date.

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