Ottawa is facing calls to save Ontario’s basic-income program, after the Ford government’s announcement that it will halt the pilot threw thousands of its poorest residents into disarray.
The previous Liberal government had wanted to see how a basic income, or money with no strings attached, could improve the effectiveness of the province’s social assistance.
But less than a year after some 4,000 residents in Thunder Bay, Lindsay and the Hamilton region started receiving the basic income for a three-year test, the Ford government decided it will slash the program saying it was not working the way it was intended.
Tom Cooper, the director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, which worked with the province to recommend people for the program, said the announcement was “a betrayal of the lowest-income members of my community.”
Mr. Cooper said basic-income recipients have been reaching out to him for answers he does not have. He wants Ottawa to step in. “We already have the infrastructure. They should adopt the program.”
Jean-Yves Duclos, the federal minister minister responsible for poverty reduction, was non-committal on Wednesday. His office issued a statement that did not criticize Ontario’s decision and said Ottawa would soon be releasing an anti-poverty strategy.
The Ford government defended its decision to kill the $50-million-a-year program. Ontario Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod told reporters on Wednesday the province will work to help the participants as the pilot is wound down.
“We’re going to try to work with those who are on the basic-income pilot as we wind it down and we’re going to make sure that the supports are in place," she said.
“I think that when you’re encouraging people to accept money without strings attached, it really doesn’t send the message that I think our ministry and our government wants to send.”
Under the pilot, a single person was eligible to receive nearly $17,000 a year and a couple $24,027 a year. People with disabilities could receive slightly more. Those who worked could also receive basic income, although any employment income reduced the amount of basic income provided.
For 29-year-old Alana Baltzer, who lives in Hamilton, the end of the program is a big disappointment.
Since last November, Ms. Baltzer said she has been receiving $1,915.75 a month in basic income instead of $722 in social assistance. The extra income allowed her to buy vegetables, fruit, meat and a gym membership.
“It changed my life in many ways,” she said. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Ms. Baltzer said the basic income gave her dignity and mental-health stability. She has been babysitting and living in subsidized housing and planned to look for better housing and to study at Mohawk College. Those plans are now on hold.
The pilot cancellation has left cities in the dark such as Lindsay, which was slated to have the highest concentration of basic-income participants. Cheri Davidson, communications manager with the City of Kawartha Lakes, which includes Lindsay, said they have yet to receive any details from the province.
Federal Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette said the two governments should talk about how to see the project through to its conclusion so that policy makers can learn from the evidence that will be produced.
“It’s a terrible shame actually. It’s a waste of government resources to cancel something halfway through when you don’t know the end result,” he said.
The Winnipeg Centre MP represents one of the poorest ridings in the country. He and other anti-poverty advocates say Ontario’s decision shows history is repeating itself.
Nearly 40 years ago, a new Progressive Conservative government in Manitoba shut down a four-year-old basic-income pilot project that had been launched jointly in 1974 by an NDP provincial government and the federal Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau.
The concept of providing citizens with a minimum income has attracted new interest across the world, as the shifting nature of work raises concern that in the not-too-distant future there could be a sharp decline in the number of available jobs.
Finland, Kenya, the Netherlands and Oakland, Calif., have embarked on their own basic-income studies over the past few years. However, Finland recently decided not to extend the project beyond this year.
Before entering politics, Mr. Duclos, the federal Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, wrote papers on basic income as an academic economist; he has previously said he was pleased Ontario was launching the pilot project.
The minister’s office provided a statement on Wednesday to The Globe and Mail that was neutral on the Ford government’s decision.
“The design of provincial social programs is up to the provincial governments,” his office said.
With a report from Justin Giovannetti