Time for a real discussion on poverty

Andrea Bodkin, Health Promotion Specialist

It has been, to say the least, a challenging week. In my search for somewhat cheerful news, I found this opening sentence in an article on CBC.ca:

The best government solution to poverty might be the simplest one: give money to poor people, no strings attached.

This sentiment echoes what many anti-poverty activists have been saying, and to read this statement in mainstream media is hopeful. There has been a great deal of discussion and movement regarding poverty in recent weeks, from the release of the Discussion Paper for Canada’s poverty reduction strategy to Senator Hugh Segal’s discussion paper on Ontario’s basic income pilot project. Both the Canadian and Ontario governments are seeking input on their discussion papers.

Finding a Better Way: a Basic Income Pilot for Ontario

A basic income is generally seen as a payment from the government to eligible people and families to ensure they meet a minimum income level. This pilot project will study whether giving people a basic income is a more effective way to reduce poverty in Ontario and improve health, housing and employment outcomes.

Complete this survey by January 31, 2017 and help the Ontario Government explore new ways to deliver income support across the province.

Towards a Poverty Reduction Strategy: A Discussion Paper

The Government of Canada is reaching out to its provincial, territorial and municipal partners, Indigenous people, community organizations, poverty experts and academics, the business community and those who have a lived experience of poverty. In the coming months, an online engagement website will be launched where interested individuals and organizations can participate in developing the Strategy. You can also contribute to the work of the Standing Committee developing the pilot, including submitting a brief and/or making a request to appear. More information can be found here.

Moving past discussion into action

My colleagues and I just had an animated discussion about these discussion papers. Given the significant evidence, in Canada and abroad, over the last several decades the basic income/poverty reduction strategy are effective and efficient, it is difficult for governments to move forward with these initiatives.  When asked this question recently, Hugh Segal responded:

… there are three reasons. First of all, generally speaking, finance officials right across all governments don't like programs that provide an automatic payout because that reduces the discretion of their minister and their cabinet to make spending decisions … Second, is a very strong view that if you pay people to do nothing, they will do nothing, when there's not a scintilla of evidence to back that up ... The third reason — I think this is the one that is perhaps most problematic — is the notion that comes back to our old charity laws that folks who are low-income are guilty of some sort of moral weakness. They are not committed to working. They want to sit on their couch with chocolates and popcorn. There's just no evidence to back that up.

I hope that you – and your organizations and networks- take the opportunity to get involved in these two strategies. I look forward to seeing how Ontario and Canada move forward with these initiatives!