A number of governments across Canada are considering Basic Income (BI) programs to replace social assistance and other income support programs. Quebec, Prince Edward Island, and mayors of several cities have shown interest, but Ontario is furthest along and is designing a BI pilot that’s expected to begin this year. But the pilot – and current BI models – have serious flaws.

The pilot’s goal is to “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.” The plan is to modestly improve cash transfers to social assistance recipients, cut administrative costs, and eventually reduce spending on public services.

There is, of course, a dire need to improve incomes for social assistance recipients. In 1995, the Ontario government slashed assistance rates by 21.6 per cent. Increases since then haven’t kept up with inflation. It would take an immediate increase of 58 per cent to restore purchasing power to the pre-1995 level. Many question why the Ontario government is embarking on a pilot project that will take about five years to complete instead of improving conditions for social assistance recipients now, including by raising benefits above their current abysmally low rates. The basic income pilot project may appear progressive, but it diverts resources away from and delays substantive changes.

If Ontario’s form of BI is implemented as a full program, ‘efficient delivery’ is likely to mean service cuts and job losses for social assistance workers. For some, the aim is to convert public services into a simple cash transfer, expecting that people will be able to buy services they need on the market. For these and other reasons CUPE Ontario is opposing this program.

The goal of “strengthening labour market attachment” really means expecting that social assistance recipients will get jobs. The problem? There aren’t enough jobs for everyone, and there has been a decline in the quality of jobs. Pushing more people into the labour market without creating more jobs will lead to lower wages. Without improvements to employment and labour standards, the trend towards precarious employment will worsen, as competition for scarce jobs increases the bargaining power of employers.

Raising social assistance rates is important, but it’s not enough. Without a full employment strategy, stronger employment standards, and robust public services, raising incomes can’t eliminate poverty. The private market doesn’t provide everything we need, and it certainly doesn’t provide what we need at a price we can all afford. Ending deprivation and poverty begins with strong public services that support people with low incomes.

- Dan Crow