Ottawa is facing new pressure to act on a basic-income guarantee after the Ontario government announced it will test the idea.
Thursday's Ontario budget said the province will conduct a basic-income pilot to study whether providing people with a guaranteed minimum amount of income would be a more efficient and effective way to deliver social support. The project will test claims by those who say it would help the working poor and lead to savings in health care and administration.
The general concept is that the government would ensure that all citizens have enough income to cover basic needs. One option for such a program is for the government to set a basic amount, such as $18,000 a year, and people whose income is less could receive payments to bring them up to that level.
The federal Liberals have committed to a poverty-reduction strategy; the cabinet member responsible, Minister for Families, Children and Social Development Jean-Yves Duclos, is a leading economist who has studied basic-income options for years, although the party has not explicitly committed to the idea.
A spokesperson for Mr. Duclos said the Minister is monitoring the debate.
The idea was tested briefly in Manitoba in the 1970s and is gaining momentum in Europe.
Ontario provided few details on its plans, other than to say it will work with communities, researchers and others this year on how to design the test.
Advocates of the concept say Ottawa should work with the province, given that the two levels of government have overlapping responsibilities when it comes to providing programs for low-income Canadians.
"We're absolutely delighted that we're seeing this forward movement on the idea of a basic-income guarantee," said Ian Culbert, executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association, a non-profit advocacy group that has been campaigning in favour of a basic income. "It's a perfect opportunity for the federal government to partner with Ontario to see how they could work together and provide that as a model for other jurisdictions."
Also this week, the Senate debated a motion from Liberal Senator Art Eggleton that calls on the federal government to work with one or more provinces to fund a pilot project on a national basic-income program. Mr. Eggleton co-chaired a Senate study in 2010 that urged Ottawa to move in this direction, but the Conservative government did not act on it.
"I'm very happy to hear about Ontario, but I think they need to work with the federal government on this because the concept of it being dealt with through the tax system brings the Canada Revenue Agency into the picture," said Mr. Eggleton, adding that Quebec and several mayors have also expressed an interest. "I think the federal government needs to help pull all of the different players of interest in this matter together and work out a system that will give a good enough pilot project to be able to determine whether this can be done on a national basis."
Ontario Community and Social Services Minister Helena Jaczek said in a statement Friday that the pilot is "still in the inception stage" and that the province has not yet had conversations with other levels of government or others about the project.
"We will be testing the potential of a basic income to determine if it will provide more consistent support to clients, streamline the delivery of income support, and achieve savings in other areas, such as health and housing supports," Ms. Jaczek said.
Mathieu Filion, a spokesperson for Mr. Duclos, said the Minister follows the developments of the basic-income issue. "Mr. Duclos will always be interested in dealing with new issues and he will continue to listen to stakeholders and partners."
Mr. Duclos said this week that he and his officials will be working over the coming months on a national strategy to reduce poverty.
"My new government is committed to reducing poverty," he said on Thursday evening in Ottawa, where he was the guest of honour at the launch of an academic book published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy called Income Inequality: The Canadian Story.
The minister provided a general overview of his plan, although he did not mention a basic income.
"This new strategy will set clear targets to reduce poverty. It will also measure progress based on evidence in a transparent and open manner. Most importantly, we will be implementing new and more effective, efficient, transparent and inclusive measures to reduce poverty and increase equality," he said. "We know that rising income inequality is not only a moral issue about fairness and social justice. We know that income equality and equality of opportunity can also enhance growth and improve the working of our institutions."