A chance for Ford to be visionary
Pressure builds on Ontario premier to reverse course and see basic income pilot project to completion
During Ontario’s spring election, Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford said he would not cancel the province’s leading edge, basic income pilot project. It is, indeed, one of the most important and comprehensive examinations of the concept in the world.
But not long after winning a majority government, Premier Ford announced he will wrap up the social service experiment in March — a year earlier than needed to produce reliable findings about funding, system savings, and social and health gains.
The project involves 4,000 lowincome participants in Hamilton-Brantford, Thunder Bay and Lindsay. They receive steady incomes of $16,989 for singles and up to $24,027 for couples. They can go back to school or add to their basic income by working or starting their own business.
A group of 40 researchers has been examining how this threeyear scheme is affecting participants’ lives along with the costs and benefits.
Since then a host of community leaders, who understand the impact on work of accelerating automation and artificial intelligence, have pressed Ford to reconsider. They include mayors from the pilot cities, lawyers representing participants and researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital and McMaster University.
The mayors are urging the federal government to step in and finance the pilot’s final year. So far the answer hasn’t been encouraging.
Dominic LeBlanc, federal minister of intergovernmental affairs, has said Ottawa shouldn’t act as a “court of appeal” for provincial programs like this. “At the end of the day, they (Ford’s government) are accountable to their voters for their decisions.”
Recently, however, more than 100 Canadian CEOs joined together to urge Ford and his social service minister, Lisa MacLeod, to reverse their decision and fund the project to completion.
Their rationale? “We see a guaranteed basic income as a business-friendly approach to address the increasing financial precarity of our citizens and revitalize our economy.”
Ford seems to listen more closely to the business community than any other group. They are definitely his “people.” Let’s hope he listens to this group, whose companies have a combined annual revenue of $1.5 billion and tens of thousands of employees.
The CEOs maintain a basic income is needed to address structural changes to the global economy that are depressing wages, reducing middle-class jobs and stifling entrepreneurship.
Their letter to Ford says: “As business leaders we see a basic income as good economics and enlightened self-interest. It is a pro-growth, pro-business, profree market economic stimulus that will grow the economy and create jobs,
They argue being unable to escape poverty even while working is not only inhumane, but also a huge opportunity cost for Ontario and Canadian business. Appealing directly to Ford, in simple terms, the CEOs emphasize: ”Basic income will go right back into local business.”
The NDP and business rarely agree on anything. But they are shoulder to shoulder on the need to study the pros and cons of basic income.
Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has called on Ottawa to step in and continue the program to completion. He said it will produce “invaluable data at a very reasonable cost . . . I think we can actually make an evidence-based decision that this program can work.”
Recent studies from Oxford University and the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institute predict half of all the current day jobs will be gone within the next 15 years. Truck drivers, radiologists, retail clerks, law clerks, financial advisers and thousands more jobs and professions will be replaced by advancing automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning and robots.
Even the nature of work itself is being changed at warp speed. Permanent jobs with benefits are being replaced with contract and part-time work. Contract and freelance work — the gig economy — is rapidly becoming the norm.
Future-proofing our workforce means education and retraining, putting the emphasis on critical thinking, mental agility and teamwork. It requires a skills-first, rather than a jobs-first approach to training. People will need to develop the universal capacity to search for information. And equally important, the capacity to make sense of what they find and the opportunities it reveals.
But for many, none of this future-proofing will be possible or accessible without a basic income to allow them time to learn these universal survival skills.
A rare consensus has formed among business, the NDP, municipal leaders, university researchers and the program participants. For a variety of reasons, they all want Ford to continue funding the last year of this $150-million project.
The premier ignores their wishes at his political peril. There is wide support both here and abroad for this well designed pilot project. Governments all over the world have been watching this project with interest. If it’s completed, the results will inform policy decisions in many other jurisdictions.
Finally, it’s a chance for Ford to show his policy reach goes beyond a-buck-a beer to the most pressing issues of our time.