By Graeme McNaughton/The Oshawa Express
Touring across the province and talking to people in town after town, Chris Ballard, the province’s minister responsible for poverty-reduction strategy, says one thing is clear: people on are board with testing out a basic income.
“This whole thing seems to have touched on something right across Ontario,” Ballard tells The Oshawa Express.
“I’m really excited by this, and people seeing that we need to do something different.”
Ballard was hosting the latest public consultation on a basic income pilot study at Oshawa’s Jubilee Pavillion on Monday night. The province is currently hosting meetings across Ontario to gauge support and gather feedback on such a study. During last year’s budget, the province announced that it would be testing the idea of a basic income, which could see payments made to people on Ontario Works, disability and with incomes below the poverty line that would bring them up to that line.
The consultation process was launched to set to find out where and to who the money should go.
“There’s still a lot of questions to be answered. The standard answer I’ve been giving is that my heart tells me this is the right solution…but head says not so fast, we’ve got to get the facts and figures in place,” Ballard says.
“Even around the tables, where people know we need to start delivering…an enhanced social safety net, even the individual tables, there’s some disagreement and discussion on how to do that.”
Ballard says that the decision by the province to pursue a basic income pilot – and potentially implement such a program down the road – was because the province’s current anti-poverty financial tools – Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) – only provide assistance to those that are not working, leaving out the vast majority that are working but remain below the poverty line.
“We need multiple tools – basic income alone isn’t the answer. Perhaps raising the rates (for Ontario Works and ODSP) isn’t the answer,” Ballard says.
“Those two programs don’t capture that 70 per cent, the working poor. We need something that casts a broader net and those two programs are a little too narrow. This program has the potential to be broader, but this is why we need a pilot to see how effective it would be.”
However, not everyone is overly enthusiastic about a basic income pilot. While he says he supports any effort to reduce poverty, Cory Weir of community group We Are Oshawa, who spoke out at the start of the meeting, says that the province has spent too much time consulting and not enough time acting.
“We’ve been having these types of consultations for years, but the reality is that people that are going through these struggles need help now. These consultations, we don’t feel it’s a meaningful solution,” Weir says.
“Of course, we need to talk about solutions, but a lot of these ideas have already been brought forward by social justice activists, community activists, and we don’t feel this is a legitimate effort by the Liberal government, which has been pushing an austerity agenda since they’ve been elected.”
Prior to Ballard opening the meeting, Weir read out a statement that had been approved by We Are Oshawa and echoes one made at a basic income consultation held earlier this month in Sudbury that calls for immediate increases to Ontario Works and ODSP payments.
Weir also expressed concern that while everyone is focusing on what a basic income would be giving, they would miss what is being taken away.
“There’s a very real possibility they’ll come at this through their neo-liberal lens and use this as an excuse to gut social services,” Weir tells The Oshawa Express.
Asked about Weir’s concerns, Ballard says that services would not be cut as a result of such a program.
“That’s certainly a concern that I’ve heard and, as I’ve said, there’s no one silver bullet. I can’t see a basic income, certainly in the pilot stage, replacing the wrap around services,” he says.
“Many people are on OW, certainly on ODSP, because they need the supports that can be offered. There’s people that just need an arm around to get up and get going again, and other people require more supports. It’s certainly not our intention to take away any of those wrap around supports.”
Ballard says that a plan for the basic income pilot will be presented in April.