TORONTO — A basic income pilot project aimed at reducing poverty in Ontario is failing and many of the participants have dropped out, the province's Progressive Conservative government said Wednesday as it defended its controversial decision to wind down the program.
Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod said pilot participants would receive their cheques past August, and the program's end date would be announced later this month.
"I just wanted to point out, to begin with, the basic income research project is failing, and it's plain and simple,'' MacLeod said during Question Period. "The (previous) Liberal government had difficulty signing people up for this approach. Now a sizable number, over 25 per cent, have either dropped out or were failing to meet their obligations such as filing their taxes. It calls into question whether the $150 million being spent is actually going to be with valid research.''
MacLeod announced last week that the program launched last year by the previous Liberal government would come to an end because it was expensive and was not doing what it was intended to do. She downplayed concerns from some community agencies that the government would stop the payments at the end of August.
"I've been very clear since last week that the basic income research project will wind down and details will be forthcoming,'' she said. "But I have been very clear that there will be a lengthy and compassionate runway. Anybody who's suggesting that cheques will be cut off is misinforming people and that's not fair.''
The basic income pilot project was set to run for three years, providing payments to 4,000 low-income people in communities including Hamilton, Brantford, Thunder Bay and Lindsay. Single participants receive up to $16,989 a year while couples receive up to $24,027, less 50 per cent of any earned income.
Every day it seems like the reason for cancelling this program changes.Michael Coteau, Liberal legislator
Michael Coteau, a Liberal legislator who helped oversee the creation of the basic income pilot as a cabinet minister in then-premier Kathleen Wynne's government, slammed the rationale provided for the project's cancellation.
"Every day it seems like the reason for cancelling this program changes,'' he said. "The simple fact is we're talking about a government that is completely in chaos. They don't know what they're doing. Their priorities are not aligned with what Ontarians want.''
"Four thousand families in Ontario have just had the rugs pulled from them,'' he added. "We've stopped a very innovative program that would have given us some really good insight into the future.''
Meanwhile, anti-poverty advocates for the basic income project came to the Ontario legislature Wednesday to urge the government not to cancel the program.
Tom Cooper, from the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, said MacLeod should release reports and documentation to back up her claim that the pilot wasn't working.
"If Minister MacLeod says this is what the civil servants said then release the memos. Let's see them. Be accountable. Especially be accountable to the 4,000 people this government is cutting off,'' he said.
Cooper said that in the months after the pilot was launched last spring, government staffers told him they were very optimistic about the project.
"They seemed to think it was going really well,'' he said.
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Participants were stunned by news of the cancellation last week, he added.
"This is something that was sprung on us,'' he said. "No one expected this. People are reeling and they're scared.''
Sheila Regehr, chair of the Basic Income Canada Network, also took issue with MacLeod's comments. The project was in such early stages, she said, that it was too early to know if it was succeeding or failing.
"There can be no evidence whatsoever to base a decision on to decide that this program isn't working,'' she said. "That's just nonsense.''
Also cutting social assistance increase
The Tory government also announced last week that it was cutting a planned three-per-cent increase in social assistance to 1.5 per cent — the first step in its plan to revamp the social assistance system. MacLeod said that plan will be announced by November 8.
"There are people who are very vulnerable, who aren't able to work, so we need to make sure that we adequately support them,'' she said. "There are a lot of people that could be working and there's got to be a way for us to assist them, mentor them, and provide opportunities for them to get back into the workforce.''