Pankow remains committed to basic income project

Posted on: December 23, 2016

By Chris Must 

Smiths Falls councillors have rejected a proposal for the town to participate in a pilot project to test the concept of providing a guaranteed basic income in Ontario, but Mayor Shawn Pankow remains committed to the concept.

At a meeting of council’s Committee of the Whole Dec. 19, councillors were told by Chief Administrative Officer Malcolm Morris that Pankow had written to the province in May 2016 suggesting that the town might be interested in participating in the project – a step which some councillors said they were unaware of and would not support.

“Here we are in December talking about whether we want to be involved,” said Councillor Jay Brennan. He argued council had not given the project its blessing when the concept was initially discussed several months ago. The mayor’s letter was sent prior to that discussion.

The mayor received a reply to his letter, dated June 7, from Dr. Helena Jaczek, Minister of Community and Social Services. The letter indicated that the pilot project, including the selection of participants, was still in the inception stage.

“The basic income pilot will test a growing view at home and abroad that a basic income could build on the success of minimum wage policies and increases in child benefits by providing more consistent and predictable support in the context of today’s dynamic labour market,” the minister added.

“It’s something that I have done a lot of research into,” Pankow said. After reading a recent academic study on a similar pilot project conducted in Dauphin, MB in the 1970s, Pankow added that he concluded the new project would be “a natural fit for Smiths Falls.”

“It’s something that I have done a lot of research into,” Pankow said. After reading a recent academic study on a similar pilot project conducted in Dauphin, MB in the 1970s, Pankow added that he concluded the new project would be “a natural fit for Smiths Falls.”

The findings of the Manitoba study were suppressed following a change in government, said Pankow. But in 2011 University of Manitoba researcher Dr. Evelyn Forget released a study showing that the five-year project virtually eliminated poverty and led to improved health.

Pankow said the decision of what communities will be chosen for the project will be up to the province, but he felt Smiths Falls could benefit because the town has lower than average income, higher than average unemployment, above average reliance on transfer payments, and challenges to the health and education systems due to poverty.

“It’s pretty clear that the current system isn’t working,” he said.

Announced in the 2016 provincial budget in February 2016, the pilot project is currently being spearheaded by former senator Hugh Segal. The pilot project would run in several communities, providing people on social assistance with a basic income for three years. An individual would have to be a resident of the community for at least a year to qualify to take part in the project.

Segal, a long-time advocate for a basic income, recently produced a discussion paper on the issue. In the introduction to the paper Segal stated that: “The main purpose of a basic income pilot must be to test replacing the broad policing, control, and monitoring now present in Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), with a modestly more generous basic income, disbursed automatically to those living beneath a certain income threshold.”

Segal’s proposal sees people between the ages of 18 and 65 in Ontario living below the poverty line receive a basic income of $1,320 per month. Individuals with disabilities would receive $500 more.

Four communities are to be chosen as sites for the three-year pilot project. Trial participants would be randomly selected to receive the basic income benefit. There would also be a control group that would not receive the benefit. The control group would be studied over time to help understand the impact that the Basic Income benefit has on other groups.

“I suspect there would not be a direct cost to the town of Smiths Falls,” said Chief Administrative Officer Malcolm Morris during the Dec. 19 meeting, adding that the project would be administered by the provincial government.  

The discussion at the Dec. 19 committee meeting focussed on a proposal for a delegation from Smiths Falls to attend the upcoming Rural Ontario Municipal Association (ROMA) conference and lobby the province to be part of the study. A majority of councillors spoke against the proposal.

Councillor Jay Brennan said it would be more appropriate for the province to approach Lanark County, since social services in the local area are administered at the county level. Hosting a basic income pilot project for several years might adversely affect the town’s relationship with Lanark County regarding the provision of social services, he said. He added that social services are a provincial issue that the town should stay out of.

“I think this is something that has merit,” said Councillor Lorraine Allen, who spoke in support of the town being involved in the project. “People who live in poverty and have mental illness of one kind of another are struggling.”

Councillor Joe Gallipeau indicated that he would also support the pilot project. A guaranteed minimum income would improve public health, he said, because many people with low incomes “can’t afford to eat healthy.”

However, councillors John Maloney and Dawn Quinn said they viewed the project as throwing money at a problem that could better be addressed through education, and were not in favour of Smiths Falls being a site for the pilot project.

Quinn said students in school should be taught from an early age how to budget their money. She added that her observations of Lanark County Housing as a councillor left her unimpressed with the inefficiency of the bureaucracy involved in administering poorly constructed and managed housing projects “that should never have been built.”

Brennan responded that he was not criticizing the merits of a basic income or the pilot project itself, but only that he opposed Smiths Falls being part of the study for the reasons he had previously stated.

Mayor Pankow was absent from the meeting but said he had intended to be there but was caught up in traffic  following a medical appointment in Ottawa. Councillor Chris Cummings was also absent from the Dec. 19 meeting.

With three councillors opposed to Smiths Falls hosting a pilot project, and only two in favour, the matter will not be coming back to council.

Pankow said following the meeting that members of the public who support Smiths Falls hosting the project can write to the premier and the Minister of Community of Social Services, and contact local MPP Randy Hillier to make their views known. “Every individual in our community has an opportunity to move this forward.”

Pankow noted he has also been contacted by groups interested in holding a public meeting in Smiths Falls in January to discuss the basic income project. Details are still being worked out.