Residents decry end of basic income pilot project
A group of county residents is criticizing the Ford government’s decision to end the province’s basic income pilot project, calling it a devastating experience for those affected, and a lost opportunity for Ontario to distinguish itself as a leader on the world stage.
Greg and Bonnie Roe and Elizabeth Turner attended a rally in Lindsay last month. That rally was in protest of the cancellation of the pilot project, instituted under the Wynne government, and which was to give thousands of low-income Ontarians a reliable income for three years, and measure the impact on their well-being.
“It was hugely powerful,” Bonnie said of the Aug. 7 rally, which drew about 200 people including some 20 speakers to Lindsay’s Victoria Park. Those speakers included people affected by the project’s cancellation, politicians, political candidates and others.
“It was gut-wrenching to me, the emotion that came from everybody,” said Bonnie, a retired nurse. “First of all, about what the positive effects could have been, to break the cycle of poverty and give some people a quality of life that some people take for granted . . . and to gather those stats, that could have been so valuable.”
Under the pilot project, single participants received a guaranteed basic income of $17,000 per year, and couples $24,000, a rate nearly twice that of average welfare payments. It began in 2017 and was to last three years. Lindsay, along with Hamilton and Thunder Bay, was one of three communities chosen for the project, with about 2,000 people there signed up.
The intent of the project was to study how a basic income might help those living on low incomes meet their basic needs, measured in terms of food security; stress and anxiety; mental health; health and health-care usage; and housing stability.
Bonnie noted some of the participants at the rally had been able to put their children in daycare, or stop using the food bank and start shopping at grocery stores for the first time.
“The business people were on side because there were citizens [who] wouldn’t have been able to spend the money or participate in the community, who are now able to go and buy things in the store,” said Turner, a retired teacher.
Turner also pointed out that income has been shown to be one the biggest social determinants of health.
“The performance of children in school ... kids not getting proper nutrition or afraid they’re not going to have a place to live can’t concentrate properly on their school work,” she said.
Other participants used the additional income to enrol in educational programs, and Greg explained that in some cases, those programs were ones that lasted the duration of the planned pilot project.
“They expected this support to be there, now it’s pulled out from under them,” he said.
Greg noted that one person who was not at the rally was Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock MPP Laurie Scott, who is also the province’s new labour minister.
“Conspicuous in her absence was Laurie Scott, our MPP,” he said. “Her office is in Lindsay. She could have sent a representative. Did she? No. She could have sent a speech or something to be read. Did she? No. It was very disappointing.”
The PCs said during the election campaign that the pilot project would continue were they to form government.
“Why couldn’t they, with some grace, have just said, yes, let’s give it the three years . . . let something that’s already started keep going,” Bonnie said.
Earlier this year, Scott told the Lindsay Advocate she was glad the community was chosen for the pilot project. A nurse in her pre-political career, she said in the April edition of the Advocate that she was certain increased income, or through finding better employment, would lead to improved health for pilot project participants.
The paper asked Scott to justify the project’s cancellation.
“It was definitely a difficult decision that the minister had to make,” Scott said.
Nepean MPP Lisa McLeod is social services minister in Ford’s cabinet.
Scott said when it came down to it, the government didn’t believe the project was actually going to help break the cycle of poverty.
“There’s going to be lots of assistance for participants,” she said, indicating that those who had gone off of Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program would be transitioned back on to those programs. Payments under the basic income pilot project are scheduled to end in March.
The cancellation of the project has been condemned by academics, and the mayors of Lindsay, Thunder Bay and Hamilton have cried foul at the decision, asking the federal government to get involved
Former Conservative senator Hugh Segal criticized the party for the pilot’s cancellation in an August column in the Globe and Mail.
“Are the honest politicians in Hamilton, Thunder Bay and Lindsay now to become cannon fodder in this ideological snap back?” Segal wrote. “Do ministers such as Caroline Mulroney, Laurie Scott and Christine Elliott concur with treating people this way? Or do we now have a definition of Progressive Conservative that excludes all but the well-off?”
Lawyer, social worker and former HKLB federal NDP candidate Mike Perry has also launched a class action lawsuit against the province on behalf of a group of Lindsay residents.
“A very simple perspective, to me, is this,” said Greg, a retired teacher. “If you’re teaching your children, or teaching kids, one thing you want to teach them is that if you start something, you finish it.”