Anti-poverty activists urge Ontario to focus on poverty reduction, not just basic incomes

Photo: Generation Grundeinkommen/flickr

Anti-poverty activists in Ontario are calling the provincial government's announcement of a basic income pilot project for low-income adults a positive first step, but say more must be done to help people living in poverty.

"It's great that we've got a trial happening, but we can't let the government use this as a ploy to just sit on their tushes and wait for three years. There's desperate need for immediate action on welfare rates," said John Mills, a community activist with the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction.

The roundtable has no official position on basic income, but will be watching the project closely. The pilot is scheduled to begin in Hamilton, Brantford and Brant County, as well as Thunder Bay, later this spring. It will launch in Lindsay in the fall.

The government announced the details of the three-year pilot project late last month. The project will test if receiving a guaranteed basic income improves the quality of life for people who have low incomes.

On the pilot, a single person will be eligible to receive up to $16,989 per year; a couple $24,027. A person with a disability is eligible to receive an additional $6,000 per year. These amounts are 75 per cent of the Low Income Measure. Participants will continue to receive provincial and federal child-care benefits while on the program. Payments will be received monthly.

People receiving a guaranteed basic income can work. But their basic income will be reduced by half of what they earn. If a single person earns $20,000 from employment, their basic income would be reduced from $16,989 to $6,989. Participants who receive employment insurance or the Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) will have their income reduced dollar by dollar, the government's website says.

People who receive social assistance through Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) are eligible to apply to be part of the pilot. They won't receive income from OW and ODSP while receiving guaranteed basic income payments. But any coverage they received as part of the Ontario Drug Benefit will continue. Recipients of ODSP will continue to receive dental benefits if they had them before joining the pilot.

'A paradigm shift from social assistance'

Advocates praise guaranteed basic income for providing assistance without intense scrutiny.

"It's a complete paradigm shift from social assistance," said Sheila Regehr, chairperson of Basic Income Canada Network, one of the organizations that participated in consultation. Social assistance programs come with restrictive bureaucracy. After proving their eligibility, individuals have to report their income and changes in their living situations much more often than those who don't receive these types of assistance. When people begin earning income, their social assistance benefits are reduced or taken away. The anxiety of having to maintain eligibility and sometimes not knowing how much money is coming each month can cause a lot of stress, said Regehr. It can also discourage people from seeking employment.

A basic income "treats people with respect. It allows people autonomy to make their own decisions," said Regehr.

Mills understands the anxiety that comes with being monitored on social assistance. He recently began receiving CPP payments after living on OW since 2010.

"Basically, you're screwed," he said of the system. People who are receiving OW need to show their caseworker that they're looking for employment. That can be difficult, especially if they don't have access to transportation to attend job interviews.

Several times, Mills received letters saying his account had been suspended and he wouldn't be receiving his payments. The situations were always resolved, but it caused undue anxiety, he said. Sometimes, he didn't have a phone, so he couldn't contact his caseworker to explain the situation.

"It's the whole dynamic of not having the ability to stand up for yourself and deal with issues in a timely manner without being cut off from any kinds of funds," he said. "It just creates a lot of unnecessary stress."

The guaranteed basic income won't include that monitoring. It will also produce better data about poverty in Ontario.

Marc Leferriere, a former coordinator with the Brantford Roundtable on Poverty, is optimistic about the project. He first heard about guaranteed basic income nearly a decade ago, but thought of it as a "pie-in-the-sky" dream.

The fact that it's actually something that tangibly will have at least a pilot in our community, that's great."

The data from the pilot could be used to better deliver social services, he said. As a former social worker, he saw people struggle with poverty every day. He understands the struggle: he grew up in a family that relied on social assistance. He didn't get a driver's licence until his early 20s because there wasn't money for it. That meant travelling to summer jobs in the county impossible, he said.

A guaranteed basic income can address problems of insecure employment, said Mills, who has studied basic income for years and attended North American conferences on the topic.

Basic income is the only way to keep capitalism running in North America, said Mills. Precarious employment and increased automation are making it harder for people to earn money to stimulate the economy. A guaranteed income gives that stimulus, he said.

More needed to reduce poverty

But not all anti-poverty activists are convinced guaranteed basic income will increase job security.

John Clarke, an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), offered quick condemnation, calling the pilot "dangerous" and "unjust."

"What they're really experimenting with is not really an income for poor people, but a de facto subsidy for low-wage employers."

Instead of testing a basic income, the government should raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, he said.

It allows the government to say it's doing something to fix the problems of poverty, while not committing to raise social assistance rates. Any changes in legislation the project could inspire wouldn't likely happen until years after the pilot concludes, Clarke said.

The project is a guaranteed failure, Clarke said.

To test basic income, you have to see how the system works in a major jurisdiction. What they're doing is, they're testing a small group of poor people in a way that's very offensive," he said. It would be more radical, he said, to impose a maximum income. This way, instead of seeing how poor people handle a little more money, governments could test how wealthy people live with a little less.

He called the government's reliance on consultations an "abomination." The coalition did not make submissions a part of the consultation process. Instead, it protested at consultations.

Proponents of a basic income said there were some things they'd change in the pilot's plans. Regehr said she would have liked to see the government explore reducing participants' employment earnings by various amounts, not just the 50 per cent in the plan.

Josephine Grey, founder of Low Income Families Together (LIFT) in Toronto, said that Ontarians must fight for a good guaranteed basic income. Grey has received ODSP for nearly a decade, and other forms of social assistance before that. A single mother, she knows the challenges of relying on a broken system, and would "absolutely" apply to be part of the pilot if she lived in one of the eligible communities. A guaranteed basic income could allow people to spend their time creating meaningful jobs, like those that can benefit the environment.

She's "cautiously optimistic" about the pilot, saying the government hasn't had a "positive proposal for poor people for decades." But citizens are also responsible for making sure the program works, she said. Fighting to keep the current welfare system the way it is won't help, she said. But neither will viewing the government as "some big, monolithic enemy."

"We have to realize democracy's a two-way street," she said. "If we want the basic income program to be a good one, then fight for it to be a good one."

Read part one of our look at Ontario's basic income pilot program here.

Meagan Gillmore is rabble's labour reporter.

Photo: Generation Grundeinkommen/flickr

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