The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Conservatives end ‘basic income’ program in Ontario, afraid to be proved wrong

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, center. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

Christo Aivalis is a postdoctoral fellow in the history department at the University of Toronto. He is the author of  “The Constant Liberal: Pierre Trudeau, Organized Labour, and the Canadian Social Democratic Left.”

The new Progressive Conservative government of Ontario decided to break an election promise to allow a “basic income” (BI) pilot instituted by the previous Liberal administration to run to conclusion. This will leave thousands of Ontarians enrolled in the pilot without an income source they were promised for nearly two additional years. For some, the BI was protecting them and their families from food insecurity and homelessness; for others, it was enabling them to obtain the education and job training needed to improve their lives.

Why, then, would the government break its promise and end the pilot? Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod and other Conservatives argue that the very concept of a BI goes against their philosophy and that “the best social program is a job.” Giving poor people free money, they assert, will only perpetuate poverty and unemployment and waste taxpayer dollars (this despite the fact that nearly three quarters of BI pilot participants were already working).

The government’s rationale is simply not in line with what history tells us about BI.

In 1968, the Special Senate Committee on Poverty, chaired by Liberal Senator David Croll, was tasked with studying the nature of poverty in Canada. By 1971, the committee found that, as in the United States, many were still mired in severe intergenerational poverty. Croll’s main solution was to create a Guaranteed Annual Income. He argued that — despite the dogma that social assistance bred laziness and dependence — most people living in poverty either already worked, were involuntarily unemployed or were otherwise struggling through no fault of their own.

Initially, the Pierre Trudeau Liberals rejected the idea on the grounds that a BI would endanger work ethic, while unions, anti-poverty activists and the democratic socialist New Democratic Party (NDP) supported Croll’s findings.

By 1974, however, the Trudeau Liberals would team with the Manitoba NDP government to launch a BI scheme known as MINCOME, which would run until 1979. The data from the program went unstudied for years, but later scholars such as Wayne Simpson, Derek Hum and Evelyn Forget were able to show that the income had relatively “modest” effects on recipient employment, with the largest declines concentrated among male teenagers, who may have chosen to continue their education, and new mothers who may have been using MINCOME as a sort of maternity leave. In addition, Forget found that MINCOME could be linked to an 8.5 percent decline in hospitalization rates.

The United States also conducted BI programs in urban and rural communities during the 1970s. Melissa Martin has compared MINCOME to American equivalents, finding that while decline in employment rates among recipients were higher in United States, they were smallest among breadwinners and were smaller than expected overall. One controversial side effect of a BI in the American context that wasn’t seen with MINCOME was an increase in divorce rates, but this has been disputed in the scholarship, and Martin notes that this may actually be a positive side effect when couples staying together only out of financial necessity no longer have to do so.

All in all, there is ample data showing that while BI programs may have high initial costs, and do cause some declines in workforce participation, they don’t create a society of lazy moochers. Perhaps they should listen to other right-of-center intellectuals, such as Milton Friedman, who saw great social and economic value in a BI program.

The former Conservative senator Hugh Segal, one of Canada’s high-profile champions of the BI, has critiqued his party’s cancellation of the pilot as a “horrific” act that not only harms vulnerable people trying to improve their lives but also turns its back on equality of opportunity, something all Conservatives supposedly hold dear.

Many people have legitimate concerns about a BI program and its specific implementation, especially from the left, where some feel it would entrench existing patterns of inequality. But opposition in the form of hand-wringing about the “idle and shiftless poor” is ignorant at best, and disingenuous at worse.