Finding the middle ground

By Mike Baker

Just how much responsibility does a government, or we as a society have when it comes to ensuring our poorest and most vulnerable individuals are sufficiently taken care of?

Just this past weekend, with this editorial firmly in mind, I posed that very same question to a dozen of my closest friends and family members.

I had mostly positive responses, with comments generally centred around the belief that we do have a responsibility to help those in need. There were references to people with physical and developmental disabilities, the unemployed, those with mental health issues and the elderly. There are various programs available to individuals, both provincially and federally – but do these supports go far enough?

According to advocacy group Canada Without Poverty, there are nearly five million Canadians living in poverty. Given that our national population, as of 2020, is slated at around 38 million, that would mean approximately 13 per cent of all residents are living under the poverty line.

The federal government published an official poverty dashboard last February, shining a light on issues that affect millions of Canadians. That particular report states that 12.7 per cent of Canadians had unmet housing needs, 11.2 per cent reported having unmet health needs, and 8.7 per cent faced issues surrounding food security. Interestingly, the report also noted that only 51.2 per cent of Canadians reported having enough savings to maintain their well being for a period of three months in the event of a sudden job loss, illness or injury.

A month later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the theoretical problem of having to support one’s self and family without an income became a reality for many. The federal government was quick to jump in, creating several programs, including the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, in an attempt to help people get by. Approximately nine million individuals have accessed CERB, which gave a monthly stipend of $2,000. The total cost of the program is estimated at around $75 billion.

The introduction of CERB seemed to revive the idea of a basic income program. The Ontario government, then led by the Liberals under Kathleen Wynne, dipped their toes into the water on this back in 2018. Around 4,000 people residing in Hamilton, Thunder Bay, Brantford and Lindsay were enrolled, with individuals told they would receive approximately $17,000 annually over a three-year period. Doug Ford was quick to cancel the program later that year.

It’s been difficult to gauge whether or not the basic income pilot was a success given the limited time that people benefitted from it. Having friends in Lindsay who qualified, I know it did some good. It also had its flaws, and was abused by those who found a way to cheat the system.

Would a more permanent program, rolled out nationwide, help to reduce poverty in Canada? Many experts believe it would, but it’d come at a considerable cost.

Back in 2018, the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimated that a national basic income program modelled on the Ontario pilot would cost $76 billion annually, and would benefit 7.7 million Canadians. Even taking into account the estimated reduced costs in other areas, a basic income initiative would still come at a price of around $43 billion per year.

Given that total expenditures in the last federal budget in 2019 came in at $355.6 billion, adding another 12 or 13 per cent to that total for a basic income program is not feasible long-term.

While we do have a responsibility to help those who are most in need, there is a limit to what that responsibility should be. We do not live in a perfect world. Assistance should be provided to those who need it, but not at the cost of bankrupting the whole system. There is a middle ground that our politicians need to find.