On July 31, the Ontario Government announced it would be scrapping the Guaranteed Basic Income program (G.B.I) which had been implemented on a trial basis by its Provincial Liberal predecessors in April, 2017. Under their plan, eligible participants, those living below the poverty line in selected communities, would receive up to $17,000 per year and couples as much as $24,000, (with some reductions for income earned) — but without other conditions attached.

              Rev. Bob Johnston

Supporters of the idea presented it as a welcome hand-up directed at those 4,000 households in need; critics saw the G.B.I. as an unwarranted hand-out, tossing hard-earned taxpayer dollars at people who would get paid for doing nothing.

Our Civic Holiday long weekend provides a relevant occasion to examine this controversy. Since 1869, this first weekend in August had been set aside for Ontarians to celebrate and honour our first (1791-96) Lieutenant-Governor, John Graves Simcoe. As an able administrator who also chose York (Toronto) as the Provincial capital, Simcoe advanced the cause of a representative parliament in Ontario. It is in this legislature where a debate over the intended demise of G.B.I. will now take place.

Canada’s welfare policy has its philosophical origins in Elizabethan Britain with the passing of the first “Poor Law” in 1601. Prior to that date, any mandate to assist the poor, infirm, aged and orphans fell to the Church. Based on the teaching of Jesus (Mathew 25), charity was deemed a proper duty for every Christian. But, from 1601 the State assumed growing responsibility for its needy citizens. The Poor Law clearly separated the “deserving poor,” those unable to find work or those physically unable to work, from the “idle poor.” This latter group were able-bodied who were judged as preferring laziness to ambition even when jobs were available. A means test determined in which category one was placed; only the deserving would be given help. Taxes from property owners, not charity, covered this cost.

As the role of the State grew in Canada, responsibility to assist vulnerable members of society also shifted from voluntary acts of charity to governmental policies based on social justice. Welfare would become a right, not relying on some act of individual compassion. While there is now a tendency to dismiss “charity” as conscience-relieving activities of wealthy do-gooders, my Protestant, Scots-Irish immigrants to Canada in 1847 were likely kept safe from disease and starvation that first year by individual acts of kindness from Francophone Catholic Church parishioners in Quebec City. There still remains a vital role for charity in our country.

In Canada, government “welfare” or its preferred name, social assistance, required applicants to pass a means test to be assessed as deserving or not. Historically, many people in need have refused to accept welfare because it was considered a demeaning process which undermined one’s self-respect and dignity. Those receiving welfare also found that any income earned through part-time employment resulted in a comparable reduction in government benefits. It often seemed wiser and easier to “stay on the dole” which at least provided predictable income, including medical benefits.

As a modern welfare state, Canada has implemented other types of legislation which bypassed charity and also avoided stigma of a means test. Based on the concept of “pooled funds, individual need,” several Unemployment Insurance Acts were implemented, beginning in 1940. Workers (and employers) regularly contribute into a common “pot.” When a job was lost, the unemployed could draw income from that pool of funds. In a perfect scheme, the plan is self-sustaining; tax dollars are not required.

Universal Programmes such as Old Age Security (1951) and Family Allowance (Baby Bonus-1945) neither required a means test nor contributions. Every senior of a certain age (70, 65, 66?) and each new mother would automatically receive a government cheque regardless of income. In the computer age this can be administered much more efficiently and inexpensively than other modes of income assistance.

Which brings us to the Guaranteed Basic Income and its advantages:

  • no army of bureaucrats is needed to determine eligibility and supervise recipients
  • no “welfare” stigma is attached to receiving the monthly cheque
  • recipients can seek employment without that income gain being completely eroded by reduction in their government payment
  • pervasive anxiety created by ongoing poverty is reduced, enabling the individual to use renewed physic energy and motivation to seek further education or employment
  • guaranteed income can create and maintain greater family stability, including finding better quality day care or perhaps having less need for it. A mom or dad, employed part-time, may now be able to choose full-time parenting.

Cynics, including the current Provincial Government, point out that the trial has not produced hoped-for results. Many taxpayers remain opposed to the philosophical concept of anyone receiving something for nothing. And why increase government spending when the Province’s debt and deficit remain sky high?

Next column, I will present another view, the argument that, rather than being a drain on the Provincial budget, G.B.I. can actually inject more money into our economy. As a professional social worker (MSW) for many years, I will also offer a few balanced observations about the lives of my welfare clients.

And remember to take a moment and thank that forgotten General, John Graves Simcoe, for your extra day of weekend fun on this renamed “Civic Holiday.”