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An idea worth talking about

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Back in 2013, activists in Switzerland dumped millions of coins in a public square in Bern to celebrate the successful collection of signatures for a petition that would force the government to put the idea of a basic income from the government up for a national referendum. That vote is this summer, and other countries, including Canada, have said that the idea is, at the very least, worth talking about.

McNaughton_Graeme (web)By Graeme McNaughton/The Oshawa Express

By the time you read this, the federal budget will be released. Sadly, due to production deadlines, I won’t be able to talk much about it in this column.

One thing, however, that has been discussed in the past is a radical idea. It’s an idea being put to a vote this summer in Switzerland, one that the Ontario government has announced it will be looking into doing a pilot project on, and one that at least one minister in the federal government has said is worth taking a look at.

That idea is a basic income.

I first started thinking about the idea back during deliberations for the region’s budget. In a region that spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year, councillors couldn’t agree to spend an extra $100,000.

That money, proposed by Clarington councillor Joe Neal in the region’s health and social services committee, would have gone toward child poverty efforts. In Durham, just under 13 per cent of those under the age of six live in low-income homes. That number goes up when you narrow it down to just Oshawa – 19.7 per cent – and then goes up even more when you focus on certain neighbourhoods.

Late last year, my colleague Joel Wittnebel wrote extensively on what families in south and downtown Oshawa are facing. A look at the Lakeview area – the area which encompasses all of Oshawa south of Highway 401 – 38.4 per cent of children six and under live in poverty. Downtown, that number climbs to 42.6 per cent.

While that money was shot down by the finance and administration committee, councillors did agree at regional council’s budget deliberations the following week to add an extra $100,000 to the social services budget as a whole.

It goes without saying – we have a problem. But how do you solve it?

There’s a lot of theories on the issue. You can go the grassroots route, and tackle issues one neighbourhood at a time. The money that Neal called for would’ve gone a similar route, targeting Durham’s poorest areas.

The province has taken on its own initiatives through the Poverty Reduction Strategy. These programs tackle everything from after school programs and lunches at school to tackling homelessness to helping people find jobs. The federal government assists by transferring money to the provinces to assist with their programs, as well as things like childcare grants. But in the long run, the federal government’s role isn’t very clear.

Back in 1989, parliament unanimously voted to eliminate child poverty by 2000. It goes without saying that 16 years later, that didn’t happen. Part of that is because the feds didn’t have a plan in place. It’s all nice and lovely to say you’ll get rid of poverty, but that isn’t going to do you a whole lot if you have no plan on how to do it.

One idea, all be it radical to some, is starting to get some discussion: the idea of a basic income for all. That being that residents would receive money from the government every month, whether they are working or not.

The idea behind a basic income, according to its supporters, is that while it would be pricey up front, money would be saved on all levels of government for social programs and put back into the economy. Plus if the money is taxed, whether it be through income taxes or through spending, the money would filter back to the government.

That very idea is coming up for a vote this summer in Switzerland in a nationwide referendum. While a final amount has not been finalized, activists in that country have called for 2,500 Swiss francs per adult per month. That amounts to approximately $3,500 per month. The program wouldn’t be cheap, with the Swiss government estimating a cost of 208 billion Swiss francs – that’s $290 billion or so to you and I – per year. That’s about as much as the Canadian government spent in total in last year’s budget. A majority of that – 153 billion – would come from a tax increase, while the rest would come from the country’s social services spending.

As I said, the idea is a radical one. While the topic has garnered some discussion in Canada – Jean-Yves Duclos, the minister of families, children and social development, says the idea is worthy of a discussion, and has been endorsed by the mayors of Calgary, Edmonton and Halifax – it is certainly not as far along as it is in Switzerland.

Sure, it’s a crazy idea. Sure, it would be expensive. But in a country with citizens facing less steady full-time work and a bigger reliance on part-time and temporary work, and where thousands of children go into school every morning on an empty stomach, it’s at least worth talking about.