Don’t de­lay help­ing poor

Toronto Star - - CANADA -

The idea of pro­vid­ing a ba­sic min­i­mum in­come for ev­ery­one — no strings at­tached — is an al­lur­ing one that has been kicked around for decades. Now the On­tario gov­ern­ment is edg­ing closer to test­ing the idea with a pro­posal that high­lights both some of the ad­van­tages and many of the prob­lems in­her­ent in the idea.

Sup­port­ers of the ba­sic in­come con­cept typ­i­cally ar­gue that it would be a win-win.

It would lift peo­ple out of poverty while free­ing them from the petty hu­mil­i­a­tions of com­ply­ing with Byzan­tine wel­fare rules. It would let them earn more money with­out be­ing pe­nal­ized. And it would save tax dol­lars by slash­ing bu­reau­cracy and re­duc­ing the heavy health and so­cial costs of poverty.

That’s the dream. But de­sign­ing a plan that’s ef­fec­tive, fi­nan­cially af­ford­able and po­lit­i­cally ac­cept­able has proven beyond the wit of so­cial re­form­ers.

That hasn’t de­terred the Wynne gov­ern­ment, which asked for­mer se­na­tor Hugh Segal, a long­time sup­porter of the con­cept, to sug­gest how On­tario could dip its toes into the ba­sic in­come wa­ters by run­ning a lim­ited pi­lot pro­ject. The idea is to study what the ef­fects would be of pro­vid­ing peo­ple in poverty with a ba­sic in­come, as a step to­ward de­sign­ing a per­ma­nent sys­tem.

What Segal has come up with can best be de­scribed as a mod­est pro­posal. It re­jects the type of revo­lu­tion­ary up­heaval in so­cial pro­grams em­braced by the more en­thu­si­as­tic pro­po­nents of ba­sic in­come — what Segal dis­misses as the “Big Bang” ap­proach.

In­stead, un­der his plan a sin­gle per­son in poverty would re­ceive a monthly pay­ment of about $1,320 — or $15,840 a year. A per­son with dis­abil­i­ties would get $500 a month more. The money would be non-tax­able, there would be no el­i­gi­bil­ity rules (aside from be­ing poor), and par­tic­i­pants could keep more of any ex­tra money they earn.

That’s a lot more gen­er­ous than the ex­ist­ing so­cial as­sis­tance pro­gram, On­tario Works, which pays a sin­gle per­son a max­i­mum of just $706 a month, or the On­tario dis­abil­ity pro­gram, which pays up to $1,128.

But the fact is that even Segal’s pro­posed “ba­sic in­come” level would leave a sin­gle per­son far below the prov­ince’s so-called poverty line, or Low In­come Mea­sure, of about $21,000 a year.

To ac­tu­ally get out of poverty, Segal ac­knowl­edges in his re­port, peo­ple would not be able to rely only on his pro­posed ba­sic in­come. “It is their labour that will ac­com­plish this,” he writes. In other words, to get up to the poverty line, they’d have to go out and earn the dif­fer­ence.

If any­thing, Segal’s pro­posal only un­der­lines how grossly in­ad­e­quate On­tario’s ex­ist­ing so­cial as­sis­tance pay­ments are. To ex­pect some­one to live on about $700 a month, espe­cially in a city like Toronto, is to ac­cept bad health, shoddy hous­ing, so­cial ex­clu­sion, petty crime and all the other ills that go along with deep, en­trenched poverty. Not to men­tion the scru­tiny and stigma that goes along with it.

The ba­sic in­come con­cept is a laud­able at­tempt to break that cy­cle. But the risk here is that it be­comes an ex­cuse to de­lay im­prove­ments in the cur­rent sys­tem for years to come — at least three years just to run Segal’s pro­posed pi­lot study.

More broadly, his de­lib­er­ately ten­ta­tive ap­proach would not put in ques­tion any other so­cial pro­grams or threaten the bu­reau­cra­cies that over­see them. Given that sup­port­ers of ba­sic in­come gen­er­ally claim enor­mous sav­ings from do­ing away with armies of ad­min­is­tra­tors, it raises the ques­tion of where the money to fi­nance a more gen­er­ous sys­tem will come from.

None­the­less, it takes po­lit­i­cal gump­tion to get even this far, and the prov­ince should press ahead with test­ing out Segal’s pro­posal, or some vari­a­tion of it. It may not be pos­si­ble — or in­deed de­sir­able — to blow up the en­tire net­work of so­cial pro­grams and start afresh, but even tin­ker­ing at the edges can make things bet­ter.

And in the mean­time, the gov­ern­ment should not for­get those strug­gling to sur­vive on the lit­tle that the ex­ist­ing sys­tem of­fers them.

To ex­pect some­one to live on $700 a month, is to ac­cept bad health, shoddy hous­ing and so­cial ex­clu­sion

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