When a government comes roaring into power like the Ontario Progressive Conservatives and accuses their predecessors of handing out social-assistance willy-nilly with no regard to whether they “break the cycle of poverty,” it’s stunning that their next move is to cancel a half-finished pilot project aimed at studying a different approach.
There are good reasons to be skeptical of whether a basic income program is a viable idea for Ontario, or Canada. The sticker price will make you gulp.
But that’s all the more reason to finish off a three-year pilot project that’s half-completed – to produce evidence about the pros and cons of a social program some tout as the future. Is basic income worth it? Maybe not. But since Ontario was already in the midst of asking the question, let’s hear some answers.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives broke their word and instead killed the pilot, which provided people in three communities a basic income of $16,989, and clawed back half of every additional dollar they earn. When the Toronto Star asked during the recent election campaign if the Tories would cancel it, Ford campaign spokesperson Melissa Lantsman said: “Nope, as mentioned we look forward to seeing the results.”
Now they don’t care about the results. The people who signed up for the pilot are collateral damage.
It’s no surprise that basic income programs aren’t at the top of Mr. Ford’s agenda. His government announced a broader rollback of social-assistance increases. But they’ve also decided they want to review what really works. So they should see through this rare pilot into a hotly-debated idea.
It’s in everyone’s interests, no matter what their political stripe, to finish it and see whether all or part of this notion is worthwhile, or worthless.
Left-leaning politicians like Mr. Ford’s predecessor, Kathleen Wynne, have increasingly flirted with basic income programs; NDP MP Guy Caron made it the centerpiece of his failed leadership campaign. But at various times conservative voices, like the late economist Milton Friedman, have also advocated forms of basic income.
It’s an idea widely bandied about right now by those who believe it might be a more effective way to fight poverty – and because some fear poverty might soon afflict us in more capricious ways, that automation and artificial intelligence might suddenly eliminate chunks of the job market. Some proposals call for a universal income paid to all, while others call for a minimum income partly reduced as recipients earn additional income.
Does it make people better off? Does it encourage people to quit jobs? Or does a certain level of income help people sort out training, or health, or other struggles, and work? Does it reduce other public costs, like health care?
In the 1970s, Manitoba’s NDP government ran a pilot called Mincome in Dauphin, but it was shut down after a few years. Years later, a University of Manitoba researcher concluded it cut use of the health-care system by 8 per cent. Now Ontario is ending its pilot in mid-stream.
Such programs might not be worth the money. The price tag seems huge. The office of Parliamentary Budget Officer Jean-Denis Fréchette estimated it would cost $76-billion a year to make Ontario’s pilot a national program, and even after deducting existing federal supports, it would be a net cost of $44-billion a year.
UBC economist Kevin Milligan argues that’s still the big issue. He’d have preferred to see the pilot finished, but he argued that economists already know a fair bit about the elements of basic income – how incentives to work function, or that somewhat higher supports lead to much better outcomes, like higher grades for kids. The issue, he said, is whether a basic income program can be built with a price tag the public will accept.
But it’s not the only question. Jean-Pierre Voyer, the president of the Social Research and Demonstration Corporation, said skepticism about basic income is practical, but that there are key empirical questions to be answered – not just whether it affects people’s health, or whether they work, but by how much. The information would have been valuable, he argues, even if such a program isn’t viable.
Now we’ll know less about what works, and what doesn’t.