The Ontario government has committed to test the idea of a basic income. Over the next week or so Hugh Segal will release a discussion paper intended to guide the experiment and that will be followed by public consultations.
The idea of unconditional income has a long history with supporters and detractors from both the right and the left. That it is back now reflects the growing realization that the evolution of our welfare state has not kept pace with demographic and economic change and particularly with the transformation of our labour market and the increasing precariousness of work.
For too long, policy makers viewed social programs as a drag on the economy rather than as essential to it, and focused on lowering expectations, containing costs, targeting ever more narrowly, privatizing wherever possible, placing the burden of austerity squarely on the backs of the most vulnerable. While other countries were adapting their welfare state to changing circumstances, we were offering less of the same.
The consultations and government’s willingness to take the idea on is of course rife with risk – but it is an important and long overdue opportunity to re-imagine social and labour market policy, to put equality and social justice at the centre of the policy agenda.
We have an opportunity to ask how basic income, tax and labour policy, and social services can work together to ensure that all Ontarians have access to the essentials, that all can live in dignity regardless of job status, and that all have adequate income so none need live in poverty.