Ontario Basic Income Pilot deserved a fair chance

Ford’s decision to cut social program proves shortsighted and unjustified

According to Herzallah, the Ontario Basic Income Pilot deserved a chance before its dismissal.

It’s time to stop dismissing basic income as a fantasy and act to seriously test its merits.

In April 2017, the Ontario Liberals announced the launch of the Ontario Basic Income Pilot (OBIP)—the first attempt at introducing a basic income in the province and one of the largest trials of its kind in the world.

The trial aimed to measure the impact basic income payments had on the lives of participants such as food security, mental and physical health, housing stability, education, and so on. After a year of recruitment, OBIP officially began its $150 million, three-year trial in April 2018, with 4,000 low-income Ontarians eligible to receive up to $16,989 a year ($24,027 for couples), less 50 per cent of any earned income, with no strings attached. 

The Ford government’s recent decision to cancel OBIP was premature and unjustified, and it wasted an opportunity for Ontario to generate valuable insights about the basic income question. 

At the time of its inception, the trial gained bipartisan support in Canada and around the world. 

Proponents on the left argued that guaranteeing a livable wage to the poor is the best way to reduce the poverty rate and empower marginalized portions of the population.

On the other hand, many on the right have championed basic income as a transparent alternative to the complicated system of transfer payments that make up the modern welfare state. If all social security programs were replaced with a single, guaranteed payment to all, the government can function with fewer bureaucracies and spend taxpayer dollars more efficiently.

During the provincial election this past summer—despite criticism of the pilot program from many of its voter base—the Ontario Conservatives made assurances they wouldn’t cancel the trial if elected into office. That message was supported from the top down. 

In May, a Ford spokesperson said they were “look[ing] forward to seeing the results” when asked whether a PC government would see the program to its conclusion.

Ford’s government went against their word—and that of their party’s—just a few months later, cancelling OBIP outright.

Aside from the obvious issue of an elected government explicitly going back on its word, the claim that OBIP was failing is problematic. At its cancellation date, the three-month old trial had yet to collect any data at all.

Three weeks after the election, Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod argued the province cancelled the program after being informed the expensive trial was failing to help people become independent contributors to the economy.

"[There's] the decision in the campaign and then you find the realities of when you're in government," MacLeod said when asked to justify the cancellation.

But the notion that some unnamed ministers knew the project was failing simply doesn’t make sense—the decision was made with political rather than fiscal intent. 

While Ontario’s deficit needs to be addressed, cutting a program that would have made up less than 0.05 per cent of the province’s total budget is hardly a solution.

It’s important to acknowledge the study had its fair share of shortcomings, including an overly tedious application process and a limited time span that may have made the results difficult to generalize.

But every study has its limitations—there’s no such thing as the perfect experiment.

Any insights generated by the trial would have allowed Ontario and other governments around the world to make better policy decisions in the future.

Rather than letting results speak for themselves, or proposing amendments to the study, Ford's government chose to immediately dismiss a program which could’ve meaningfully changed the way we look at basic income in the future.

Unlike welfare payments, basic income programs guarantee payments to eligible citizens regardless of their wealth, employment status or other conditions. For these payments to constitute a true “universal basic income,” they must constitute a livable wage and be distributed to every adult citizen in a society, from billionaires to the homeless.

While we’re still far away from a true universal basic income, students and recent graduates would be some of the first to benefit from targeted guaranteed payment schemes like the one proposed by OBIP. Nearly 28 per cent of Canadian youth are either unemployed or underemployed, and a basic income could allow them to develop the requisite skills they need while improving their overall wellbeing.

Guaranteed payments could also potentially help Ontario save on expenses associated with low income communities—namely higher than average crime rates and healthcare spending.

No one can definitively claim whether or not basic income will be a feasible and beneficial alternative to social security in the future.  But progressive democracies have the responsibility to continually seek out new ways to improve living standards for those who need it most.

Since the birth of the welfare state more than a century ago, rich countries have actively introduced new policies aimed at reducing inequality and bridging gaps in opportunity.

Unemployment insurance, public pensions, housing assistance, and universal healthcare were all introduced in the 20th century to continue working towards this goal. Despite initial opposition to these schemes, virtually every developed country in the world relies on these policies to operate successful and stable societies today.

Basic income has the potential to be the next major policy tool for developed democracies working towards building better societies.

By cancelling OBIP, Ford’s government wasted a valuable opportunity for Ontario to engage in an exciting policy experiment that could serve as a staple to a fair and functioning democracy.

At the very least, OBIP deserved a fair chance.

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