Why there could be a silver lining to the cancellation of the basic-income pilot

OPINION: The Tories have cut the basic-income pilot short — but there are still plenty of anti-poverty measures they could take if they want to, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Aug 17, 2018
Lisa MacLeod, the minister for children, community and social services, says that the government has launched a 100-day review of the basic-income pilot. (Chris Young/CP)



Families across the province have been left in the lurch by the new Tory government’s sudden and unexpected decision to cancel the basic-income pilot. Lisa MacLeod, the minister for children, community and social services, says that the government has launched a 100-day review of the social-assistance system.

Some are happy with the government’s move to wind the pilot project down. Gregory Mason, an economist at the University of Manitoba, said it had “core design flaws” that compromised its research value. Free-market advocates at the Macdonald Laurier Institute say the whole idea of a basic income is suspect.

University of Toronto business professor Dionne Pohler and PhD student Kourtney Koebel back the idea of a basic income but argue that the pilot “was ultimately unsustainable as a provincial program” and that pilot programs are inherently vulnerable to changing electoral fortunes.

Governments in Canada last studied the concept of a basic income in the mid-1970s, but the idea has a long pedigree, and it will likely be looked at again if and when a different political party holds power at Queen’s Park.

A man filming in The Agenda studio

Our journalism depends on you.

You can count on TVO to cover the stories others don’t—to fill the gaps in the ever-changing media landscape. But we can’t do this without you.

In the meantime, Ontario’s existing social-assistance system could be improved in ways that might make a difference for more people than were affected by the basic-income pilot.

Noah Zon, director of policy and research at the Maytree Foundation, says the government has several options if it’s serious about its 100-day review.

“The current social-assistance system includes things other than money that are important,” Zon told TVO.org earlier this week. “If we’re going to meet the goals the minister has set out — she’s talked about connecting people with jobs, getting them back to work where they can — those are all good goals, and there’s a lot in the current system that can address those.”

One obvious place to start, given the dire housing shortage in the GTA, would be supplementing the Ontario Works shelter allowance, potentially with the proposed housing benefit under the National Housing Strategy. The catch is that the housing benefit isn’t scheduled to start until 2020 — after the next federal election. It, too, is a hostage of electoral fortunes, just as Ontario’s basic income pilot was.

The government could also expand prescription-drug benefits — which can’t easily be replaced through an increase in cash payments — for low- and no-income Ontarians.

“If we want to take the minister at her word about reducing red tape, about connecting people with work and breaking the cycle of poverty, there’s a lot of good advice out there, and I hope they don’t dismiss that advice,” Zon says.

He isn’t simply trying to find a silver lining in recent events: he’s been saying since at least 2016 (when he wrote a paper for Maytree) that the excitement around the basic-income pilot was obscuring the “real risk that basic income could worsen poverty, rather than eliminate it.” His point then, as now, is that a basic income can solve certain problems, but they might not be the ones people in poverty in Ontario actually need solved — especially if the program isn’t generous enough.

The conception of a basic income as a single, universal program may sound elegant, Zon says, but enacting it could potentially leave many people with less than what they have even under Ontario’s imperfect system.

But while Zon says he was skeptical about the basic-income pilot when it launched, he doesn’t think it should have been halted prematurely.

“Even if the pilot turned out to be a bust, that wouldn’t have been wasted money,” he says. The bulk of the money would have flowed not to researchers or administration, but to the people who’d signed up.

“We know that putting money in the hands of people who have little of it will radically improve their lives … it’s hard to say there would be waste from that.”

Thinking of your experience with tvo.org, how likely are you to recommend tvo.org to a friend or colleague?
Not at all Likely
Extremely Likely

Most recent in Politics