By Brian Lee Crowley and Sean Speer, October 10, 2018
The Ford government’s cancellation of its predecessor’s basic income pilot program has generated a lot of consternation. Social activists, academics, opposition politicians and even a few Conservatives have lamented the ending of the experiment with unconditional cash transfers.
We respectfully disagree. The basic income model is deeply flawed. Queen’s Park was right to kill it.
A quick primer for readers: A basic income essentially proposes to replace the current labyrinth of government-provided income support programs with a single cash transfer to individuals or families — without any conditions such as requiring recipients to seek work — in order to ensure a minimum level of income.
The idea has been around for decades but has recently attracted interest due to concerns about “precarious work,” those “left behind” by trade and globalization, and the effects of automation and artificial intelligence on the “future of work.” The Ontario government’s pilot program was certainly promoted along these lines.
This may seem sensible on its face but, as we set out in a recent paper for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, the basic income model has various problems including (but not limited to) undervaluing the broad-based benefits of paid work.
A series of studies and experiments shows that basic income policies generally reduce people’s willingness to work. These anti-work effects seem to manifest themselves over the long-term in the form of changing attitudes, behaviours, and norms about work. It’s a reminder that short-term policy mistakes can have long-term costs.
We must never lose sight of the fact that paid work provides more than just a paycheque. Research finds that it brings important non-financial benefits such as a sense of purpose, self-worth, dignity, and interaction with others. The corollary is also tragically true: extended unemployment is associated with a range of social ills including substance abuse, ill-health, family breakdown, and criminality.
Governments don’t impose work requirements on public benefits to be mean-spirited but rather because we know that work is good for people who are capable of it. Work is itself a benefit. It’s good for the mind, body, and soul.
The push for the basic income fails to account for this humane insight. The Ford government’s much-awaited reforms to the province’s income support benefits and programming mustn’t make the same mistake. Work and opportunity should be at the centre of its policy agenda.
One of us recently heard former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark speak about her record on Indigenous files. Ms. Clark, a Labour Party politician, said that her proudest accomplishment was lowering the persistently high unemployment rate for New Zealand’s Maori population. She told a story about meeting a man whose life had been transformed by work. He summed it up this way: “People now look forward to the weekends whereas we never used to because previously everyday used to be the weekend.”
It’s a powerful insight that the proponents of a basic income in Ontario lost sight of. There’s nothing compassionate about government policy that turns each day into the weekend.
People want to feel needed. They want to contribute. They want to care for themselves and their families. They want to work. An unconditional cheque from the government is no substitute for these deep human needs. Cancelling Ontario’s basic income program was therefore the right thing to do.
Brian Lee Crowley is Managing Director and Sean Speer is a Munk Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.