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The Hidden Highlight Of Ontario's 2016 Budget

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Last week, the Ontario Liberals unveiled the province's budget for 2016. By now, we have all heard the headline regarding free post-secondary tuition for low income families -- a budget line the Ontario Association of Food Banks fully supports.

With education, comes opportunity. This budget line comes at an essential time as post-secondary students are one of the fastest growing users of food banks in this province. There is not a college or university campus in Ontario without a food bank, and the struggle to make ends meet doesn't end on graduation day.

Young people are leaving college and university with enormous amounts of debt, and entering an ever changing job market, which unfortunately is abundant with precarious, part-time jobs that start at minimum wage. In Ontario alone, there are 1.7 million jobs that are considered insecure. Working for minimum wage with no benefits and an unpredictable work schedule makes it incredibly difficult to pay down student debt, and cover the basic costs of living.

As the job market continues to contort and contract through the shifting of jobs, wages, and stability -- there is a growing voice, a growing question -- how do we make sure people across this province have the means to eat, to live, to thrive?

Hidden inside Budget 2016 is a very short paragraph that could potentially have a very big impact on Ontarians.

Social services are stretched so thin already, that we simply cannot continue at this pace. Food banks are struggling to fill shelves and freezers as the cost of food rises dramatically, and the Canadian dollar remains weak.

How can we ensure that Ontarians are able to meet their most basic needs?

Hidden inside Budget 2016 is a very short paragraph that could potentially have a very big impact on Ontarians. On page 132, Chapter I: Building Prosperity and Creating Jobs, there is a promise to start evaluating the possibility of a Basic Income Pilot:

"The pilot project 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 pilot would also test whether a basic income would provide a more efficient way of delivering income support, strengthen the attachment to the labour force, and achieve savings in other areas, such as health care and housing supports."

In the 1970s, this concept of a guaranteed basic income was tested in a small town in Manitoba.

Between 1974 and 1979 in the rural, farm town of Dauphin, social assistance was replaced with monthly payments that ensured all residents, whether working or not, received at minimum a livable wage. Critics argued that this would incentivize residents to stop working and rely solely on the government's dime.

While there was a slight reduction in the town's workforce, it was focused on two demographics: young mothers and high school students. Women stayed home longer to take care of newborns before returning to work, and teens were able to focus on studies instead of finding jobs to help support their families. But for the most part -- people continued to work.

The fears and stress of wondering how to make each dollar stretch dissolved.

Over these five years, doctor and hospital visits declined, high school graduation rates increased, and mental health and well-being of the citizens improved as people felt secure and stable knowing their most basic needs could be met.

The Dauphin experiment ended with a change in government. Few remember it, and no one seems to talk about how this small town, if only for a few years, ended poverty.

The Government of Ontario has made a big promise here. By putting in writing the plan for a Basic Income Pilot, they are making the commitment to this province to at least try, and we all must hold them accountable to their promise.

A guaranteed or basic income has the potential to even out the playing field. If every family has the means to put a roof over their heads and food on the table -- think about what the future holds.

A poverty-free Ontario is possible. If the most basic needs can be met for all of our citizens, think of the costs saved on our over-burdened health care system. Think of the improvement in the overall quality of life. Think of the potential. Think of the what ifs.

It's time to end poverty, and the implementation of a guaranteed basic income could be the first step in creating a truly fair Ontario.

Erin Fotheringham is the Senior Coordinator of Operations and Government Relations at the Ontario Association of Food Banks

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