Guar­an­teed in­come best for those with dis­abil­i­ties

The Daily Press (Timmins) - - OPINION - Ran­dall Den­ley

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. ran­dallden­

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