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A Basic Income Could Lift Canadians Out Of Food Poverty

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Hunger Awareness Week invites us to not only talk about the problem of hunger in Canada, but to think about how we can address it. At the Ontario Association of Food Banks, our long-term vision has always been a hunger-free Ontario. Next summer, this dream may inch a little closer to becoming a reality.

In the 2016 Budget, the Ontario government had a few lines about a very big project: a proposal for a pilot project to test the effects of basic income (or guaranteed annual income) in a few Ontario communities. This summer, former Conservative Senator Hugh Segal led consultations on what shape this pilot might take, and is set to publicly release a report on his findings in the next few weeks.

Basic income is an idea that dates back to the 16th century but has seen a renewed popularity over the last few years from both sides of the political spectrum. It already exists in some form in Canada via the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) for seniors and the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) for families with children, but the proposal on the table is for something much more universal.

At its simplest, it is an income granted to all individuals unconditionally, with no work requirement or strings attached as to how it is spent. It would be administered through the tax system, simplifying the delivery and reducing the bureaucracy. The two most common models are a "negative income tax" that sets a basic income floor that no one would fall under or a universal cheque given to everyone regardless of income.

hugh segal
Former Sen. Hugh Segal has been tapped as an adviser in the design of Ontario's basic income pilot project. (Photo: The Canadian Press/Michael Hudson)

The potential benefits of such a program are many. One of them is that it could dramatically reduce or alleviate poverty, the root cause of hunger. If this happens, it would reduce or even eliminate the need for food banks, as well as have many other ripple effects on the rest of society.

We know that the cost of poverty to society is great; for instance, the stress and food insecurity that come with poverty means low-income individuals are much more likely to be heavy users of the health care system. It is estimated that poverty costs the Ontario health care system $2.9 billion a year. During the famous "Mincome" experiment in Dauphin, Manitoba in the 1970s, hospitalization rates for accidents and mental health issues decreased significantly among the group who received basic income.

Critics of basic income have raised concerns about participation in the workforce dropping off if everyone was provided with a basic income. Analysis of previous basic income experiments have shown that while there is some decrease in working hours, it was typically seen with mothers staying home longer with newborns and students who didn't drop out of high school to get a job. The amount given through basic income would also be modest: only enough to help you meet basic needs like rent, food and utilities. For anything beyond that, you would still need to work.

Basic income has been called a "game changer" and an "idea whose time has come."

At the Ontario Association of Food Banks, we support the creation of meaningful, well-paid and secure employment. Yet it's estimated that 42 per cent of Canadian jobs are at high risk of being replaced by technological advances in automation and artificial intelligence. Vast amounts of "technological unemployment" could be the big problem of the future, and a basic income for all may be the solution.

Beyond simply addressing poverty, basic income could also spur creativity and innovation. Entrepreneurship could flourish if people could invest in their ideas without the fear of losing their livelihood. People would be free to pursue education to train for higher-skilled jobs or move on from jobs that don't provide proper employment benefits.

Nevertheless, we already have many different social programs that are meant to help people reach some sort of minimum standard of living. Do we really need a basic income?

Some of our current programs are outdated and ineffective. For instance, Ontario Works (OW) has convoluted rules that makes it difficult to move out of poverty, and the rates are not enough to meet the recipient's most basic needs. A basic income would be simpler and more flexible.

Yet we must be careful that it wouldn't create more harm than good. One size does not fit all, and removing certain social supports for those with greater needs -- such as people with disabilities, in remote communities and the elderly -- in favour of a cheque that provides them with less money would not be a net positive. Programs such as CPP or EI are meant to maintain incomes similar to when someone was working, so a basic income could not replace that.

We should also be mindful of the cost. The most affordable models are also the least transformative and most like our current system; the truly revolutionary models have a big price tag attached to them. There would be savings in other areas, such as the bureaucracy, health care and the criminal justice system, but the scale of these savings remains to be seen.

It will be some time until a wide-scale implementation of basic income is even possible. Any rigorous social science experiment takes a long time to implement: from conception, to selection, to years of testing, to analysis, and finally to public debate over whether or not to implement it. Yet there are many people now who are not having their needs met by our social safety net, and we need to address that, too.

This Hunger Action Month, we are asking Ontarians and our provincial government to take real action to help those who are hungry today. Basic income has been called a "game changer" and an "idea whose time has come" -- and this very well may be true. But while we wait to see how the pilot pans out, let's do what we can to help people now. To learn more about the OAFB's recommendations for change, https://oafb.ca/hunger-in-ontario/policy/> please visit our website.

Ashley Quan is the Development & Communications Officer at the Ontario Association of Food Banks.

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