Po­lit­i­cal el­der Hugh Se­gal on the rad­i­cal new plan to erase poverty in On­tario

Con­ser­va­tive party el­der Hugh Se­gal on the rad­i­cal new plan to erad­i­cate poverty in On­tario

Toronto Life - - Content - by courtney shea This in­ter­view has been edited for length and clar­ity.

You wrote a pro­posal for a project that would pro­vide se­lect On­tar­i­ans with a monthly in­come of $1,395. Over the summer, the Lib­er­als have been im­ple­ment­ing it. Why is ba­sic in­come a good idea? Be­cause about 15 per cent of On­tar­i­ans cur­rently live be­low the poverty line. And 70 per cent of them have jobs, so it’s not as if they’re sit­ting on the couch watch­ing soaps and eat­ing bon­bons. And we know that poverty is the best pre­dic­tor of bad health: poor people get sick more of­ten, go to hos­pi­tal for longer and have more is­sues with sub­stance abuse, and their kids drop out of school sooner, all of which costs the rest of us huge amounts of money.

Who gets to par­tic­i­pate? I wrote the re­port, but I’m not run­ning the pro­gram. To qual­ify, you must have an in­come be­low the poverty line. The Lib­er­als hope to in­clude 4,000 people and will spend about $25 mil­lion an­nu­ally for three years.

But the poverty line is $1,685 a month for a sin­gle per­son, and you pro­pose a ba­sic in­come be­low that. Why? Be­cause it adds in­cen­tive to work. At present, if you get a job and earn more than $200 a month, you’ll have that $200 taken out of your wel­fare cheque. With the ba­sic in­come pi­lot, earn­ings are taxed at 50 per cent: if you earn $600, you re­ceive $1,395 mi­nus $300.

Even if the pi­lot is suc­cess­ful, won’t it be too costly to im­ple­ment na­tion­ally? That’s what the pi­lot aims to find out. My in­stinct is that we would start to see net sav­ings, as people become health­ier, live longer and find better jobs. Fewer people in hos­pi­tal and prison, too.

You’re a for­mer Con­ser­va­tive se­na­tor and one-time ad­vi­sor to Brian Mul­roney and Bill Davis. How does a Tory become the poster boy for so­cial as­sis­tance? I con­sider my­self a red Tory. I be­lieve in smart, not big, govern­ment, and as much per­sonal and in­di­vid­ual power as pos­si­ble. Most in­di­ca­tions show that only three to five per cent of wel­fare re­cip­i­ents game the sys­tem. If the U.S. govern­ment was will­ing to bail out banks and au­tomak­ers, why not low-in­come people, too?

Sure, but con­ser­vatism and govern­ment hand­outs are oxy­moronic. What do your right-wing pals make of your pro­posal? Even the most fis­cally con­ser­va­tive among them have said it’s some­thing that has to be tried. As Mr. Diefen­baker used to say, if we all thought the same way, we wouldn’t be think­ing.

What was your own up­bring­ing like? I grew up in Montreal. My mother was a cashier at a drug­store. My fa­ther drove a cab. I re­mem­ber him look­ing at a stack of bills and say­ing, “We can pay two.” Many had it harder than we did, but I un­der­stood that there could be a gap be­tween what you need and what you can earn, no mat­ter how hard you try.

You were a teenager in the ’60s, and while ev­ery­one was turn­ing on, tun­ing in and drop­ping out, you were— Sadly, not do­ing much of that. I wasn’t into rock and roll or bell-bot­toms. I led the Con­ser­va­tive party at my high school. My fa­ther was a Lib­eral and my grand­fa­ther was a shop ste­ward.

So your con­ser­vatism was part re­bel­lion? I think you may be onto some­thing.

Poverty has been an is­sue in On­tario for­ever. Why hasn’t any­thing like this been tried be­fore? The poor don’t vote, so it’s easy for politi­cians to say, “Why go there?”

What do you make of the sug­ges­tion that Kath­leen Wynne is push­ing ba­sic in­come to win brownie points ahead of an elec­tion? I think she is show­ing courage. Don’t for­get that if 15 per cent live be­low the poverty line, 85 per cent don’t. There are al­ways those who re­sent money be­ing spent on the mi­nor­ity.

For three years, you have been mas­ter of Massey Col­lege, work­ing closely with grad stu­dents. What has that been like? Millennials seem to start with the premise of, “Why would we care about some­body’s colour or sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion?” They can’t understand why any­one ever did.

I’m re­minded of the maxim, “If you’re not a lib­eral in your 20s, you don’t have a heart; if you’re not a con­ser­va­tive in your 40s, you don’t have a brain.” Young people are more ide­al­is­tic, sure. But I have doc­toral stu­dents study­ing health eco­nom­ics who be­lieve that this pro­posal is a very good thing. I find that very en­cour­ag­ing.

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