It wasn’t full-blown anarchy, but Chris Ballard, Ontario’s minister of housing and minister responsible for the province’s poverty-reduction strategy, had a tough crowd to deal with at a public consultation held Wednesday at the Sault’s Delta Hotel.
Since November, both Ballard and Helena Jaczek, minister of community and social services, have been touring Ontario in a series of public consultation sessions concerning proposals to introduce a Basic Income pilot program.
Basic Income would be designed to help those living in poverty, depending on Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) payments.
Local anti-poverty advocates in attendance at the Delta Wednesday put forward an ‘emergency resolution’ from the floor, demanding the Ontario government ‘address poverty today’ as opening remarks from a government spokesperson began.
A few of them silently raised signs reading ‘Why wait? Raise the Rates!’ as Ballard gave a brief opening speech.
Though not raising a fuss by any stretch of the imagination, members of the media were asked to leave the meeting room before the consultation session began in earnest.
SooToday asked Ballard why.
“There were people tonight who wanted to share their own personal stories and we just got the sense people were more comfortable if it didn’t show up in the news or if the media wasn’t there to cover it, they’d feel a little more comfortable standing up,” Ballard said, though many people have approached the media, including SooToday, with stories of personal economic struggles.
What of the anti-poverty group’s urging, at the beginning of the meeting, to raise the Ontario Works and ODSP rates immediately?
“That’s exactly one of the things we’re looking at…the idea of raising the rates, there are some good reasons to do that. This is one of the things the income security group is talking about,” Ballard said, though not offering any guarantees.
Critics would say if Ontario Works and ODSP rates are raised, it would only encourage some (but definitely not all) to stay home and collect a cheque.
Would there be strict requirements for recipients under Basic Income to aggressively look for work and/or attend school or a training program?
“I think what’s so tantalizing about Basic Income is that it shows real promise to not only help us reform how we deliver the social safety net, but how we could empower people to return to school and return to the work force…those are key questions,” Ballard said, offering no details.
Raising social assistance rates would cost debt-burdened Ontario a considerable amount of money.
SooToday asked Ballard if pouring money into job creation and job training, along with lower hydro costs for employers, would not be a better investment for those in poverty.
“Part of what we need to do with the whole social assistance review is figure out how we break the cycle of poverty,” Ballard said, vaguely hinting the working poor could also benefit from the province’s Basic Income program.
Since June 2016, the job of compiling recommendations for the Ontario government’s Basic Income pilot program has been undertaken by Hugh Segal, a longtime Progressive Conservative strategist and former Senator.
A paper written by Segal includes calls for a Basic Income in which a single person on Ontario Works would receive $1,320 a month, people with disabilities receiving an additional monthly sum of at least $500.
A select number of Ontario communities should be chosen to benefit from Basic Income for a three year trial period, according to Segal’s recommendations.
The public has until Jan. 31 to provide input through public consultation sessions (though those sessions are quickly wrapping up, with only Thunder Bay, Ottawa, Windsor and London left to go), or online
More information on Basic Income can be found here
Ballard said the government intends to stick to its plan to take all input gathered and introduce a plan for Basic Income in April.
“We’ve been mandated by the Premier to get this pilot going,” Ballard said.
Clearly, many didn’t head into the evening’s consultation sessions impressed with plans for the Basic Income pilot project.
Meetings were held Wednesday morning and afternoon, also at the Delta, by anti-poverty and social justice advocates.
“We are a wealthy society,” said Mike Balkwill, Toronto-based Put Food in the Budget provincial organizer.
Put Food in the Budget is an anti-poverty, social justice coalition.
“There’s only one way to reduce poverty, that’s to tax the rich and redistribute to the poor,” Balkwill stated, pointing to the number of millionaires in the Toronto area alone.
“We’re demanding social assistance rates be raised immediately so that people have enough money to pay for shelter, hydro, buy food and the personal necessities they need to live a life of health and dignity,” Balkwill told SooToday Wednesday afternoon.
Currently, a single person on Ontario Works may receive up to $706 a month, a single person on ODSP may receive up to $1,128 a month.
Balkwill said the Put Food in the Budget group is not demanding a specific dollar figure in terms of raising Ontario Works and ODSP rates, but asserted the needs of people on those support systems should be met with enough money to pay for them.
“It (Basic Income) is a mirage, to distract people from the real conversation, there is a poverty crisis,” said Allyson Schmidt, an Algoma University instructor affiliated with NORDIK and Algoma Community Legal Clinic worker.
“There are people in our community who are choosing between eating and paying their hydro…there are lots of people living in substandard conditions, they’re losing their homes, even forced to live on the street or couch surfing,” Schmidt said.
Also of concern to anti-poverty advocates is that the Basic Income Pilot project will be implemented in only a few communities across Ontario for a trial period of three years.
“It’s playing communities against each other,” said Nancy Bailey, Algoma Community Legal Clinic board vice chair.
“What happens when it gets cut off (when the pilot ends)?” Schmidt said.
The program, Schmidt added, will not match rising rent and food prices.
Balkwill said activists are planning a rally before the next government consultation meeting, to be held in Thunder Bay.