For Smiths Falls mayor Shawn Pankow, the need for Ontario to explore a better way to support the most disadvantaged in society hits close to home.
In February 2016 the provincial government announced plans to conduct a pilot study to examine the feasibility of providing residents of Ontario with a guaranteed minimum income. On Thursday, Jan. 12 Rideau Community Health Services hosted a public consultation at the Smiths Falls Memorial Community Centre to gather local opinions about how the study should be conducted, and attracted a crowd of about 250.
The mayor told the crowd that 40 per cent of Smiths Falls residents earn less than $40,000 a year. “I believe we have far too many people who are living below the poverty line,” he said. “We want to see everybody in our community have a better life.”
The median income in Canada is $60,000, and half of the median income is considered the poverty line.
Jacques Pelletier, chair of the board of Rideau Community Health Services, said the agency hasn’t taken a formal position on the merits of a guaranteed income but wants to promote a public discussion. “By the number of people here, I think we struck a chord,” he said.
Among those who attended the meeting were Carol Anne Knapp and Darlene Kantor. Both women spoke forcefully at a meeting of town council’s Committee of the Whole on Jan. 9 to express their displeasure with some members of council who oppose Smiths Falls being one of the communities to participate in the pilot study.
“I get peeved when you preach austerity as some kind of character building,” Knapp told the Hometown News during the meeting. She said the province’s approach to designing the study seems to be a good example of “participatory democracy.”
After a brief presentation outlining the concept of a basic income guarantee, the participants were divided into five groups to help answer five separate questions: who should be eligible to participate in the pilot study; where should the study take place, what and how much should participants receive; how should the benefits be delivered, and how should the results of the study be measured.
Following an hour devoted to group sessions, anyone who wished to comment on basic income was invited to address the entire meeting.
Kantor said, “I am a disabled person and 16 years ago I had to start working because I was starving to death. I am really passionate, and I will fight this to the end.”
Thousands of people have gone on line and filled in a survey on the topic, and Lanark County Council has voted to ask to be included in the study, Pankow added.
Town councillor Lorraine Allen, a supporter of basic income, said, “It boggles my mind that we’re not all standing up with placards and saying, ‘Yes, this is for us.’”
Because the province intends to carry out the three-year study in a just a few communities – one in northern Ontario, one in southern Ontario, and possibly at a First Nations reserve – there is a good possibility that Smiths Falls will not be chosen, Rideau Community Health Services Executive Director Peter McKenna noted.
Feedback gathered at a series of public consultations being held between November and January, including the one in Smiths Falls, will be submitted to the province.
The government will prepare a final report from the consultations, and is scheduled to introduce a plan for the pilot study by April 2017.
Rideau Community Health Services’ interest in the basic income guarantee study is based on the link between income and public health. Alexis Green of the health unit explained that the social determinants of health, including income level, account for 50 per cent of the factors that make us sick. (The remaining determinants include access to health care, biology and genetics, and the environment.)
After announcing plans to study the concept of a basic income in its 2016 budget, the provincial government commissioned former senator Hugh Segal to prepare a report on the issue. The report outlined the challenges with the current Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program, and recommended a pilot study to assess the basic income guarantee.
The concept is to provide a basic minimum income through a cash transfer from the government to citizens, not tied to labour market participation. It would establish an income floor for every resident, regardless of work status. No household income would fall below a level that is considered adequate for basic needs.