Guaranteed income best for those with disabilities
The Ontario government is conducting an online survey to find out what you think about a no-strings-attached basic income as a way to reduce poverty. It’s a step on the road to a pilot project that could last up to three years.
At the risk of spoiling the suspense, I’m going to say giving people more money will reduce poverty. The questions are, would a guaranteed annual income be good public policy and does the government have the money to follow through?
Ontario is following up on a report from former senator Hugh Segal and is prepared to spend $25 million on a study to determine if more money from government would help provide better health, housing and employment.
The problem is simple. In Ontario, the welfare and disability programs are overburdened with bureaucracy and the payouts to the poor are puny.
Under the optimistically named Ontario Works welfare program, the most a single person gets is $706 a month. People with disabilities get a lordly $1,138. Segal proposes raising both of those amounts substantially, with welfare going up to $1,320 and the disability program to $1,820.
Segal’s proposal falls into the trap of equating the welfare program for those who should be seeking work with the disability program for those whose ability to work is impaired.
Disability payments ought to be quite different from welfare. Once a work-limiting disability is established, a person should get enough money to live with some dignity. Ontario’s payment takes people just over halfway to the poverty line. They are allowed to earn an extra $200 a month, but if they are paid more, Ontario starts reducing the disability payment.
It’s a mean and miserly approach that seems out of keeping with a government that prides itself on social justice. And yet, the Ontario Liberals have had 13 years to change it. Now, they want three more years to study it.
Before the government spends $25 million on a study, it should ask itself if it has any intention of following through with higher payments.
While the monthly increases that Segal proposes sound modest on an individual level, the overall cost is high. Combined, Ontario’s social assistance programs cost $8.7 billion a year, including administration. The disability support program alone costs $4.8 billion. Segal’s proposed 62 per cent increase to payments, while appropriate, would cost Ontario nearly $2.8 billion. Welfare increases would add $2.1 billion.
A simpler approach to delivering programs would cut the $700-million administrative budget, but not enough to offset the additional costs. So what to do? The first thing is to focus on the disability income shortfall. Welfare is meant to be a temporary support on the path to work. The disability situation is different in that the work-limiting conditions tend to be permanent. That lends itself to the kind of light administrative oversight guaranteed annual income involves.
Then, break the problem into chunks. Segal’s target income for the disabled could be met over five years by increasing payments by about $550 million a year. As for reducing bureaucracy, get to it.
The next challenge is political. It’s no coincidence that income support programs like the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors and the Canada Child Benefit for families target vote-rich demographics. People with disabilities have never been a political target group.
This is a moral issue. If Ontario wants to do more for the disabled, don’t do a study. Show them the money.
Randall Denley is an Ottawa commentator, novelist and former Ontario PC candidate. email@example.com