Ontario’s Roadmap for Income Security Reform: Can a slow start win the race?

Last year, I joined a group of experts to draw up a roadmap for income security reform in the province of Ontario. Some were knowledgeable in a field of inquiry or a profession: executives, advocates, lawyers, professors, administrators and a doctor. Others were experts in their lived experience of poverty.

We came together to provide Minister Helena Jaczek and the government a way forward using the wider lens of income security. This was not a review narrowly focused on social assistance or welfare.

We generated a ten year plan – together with staff of the Ministry –  to improve program outcomes while paying attention to human rights, adequacy of benefits and work incentives. We knew that it would be a long time before a basic income or guaranteed annual income would come to Ontario. Many governments, both national and provincial, are kicking the tires on income guarantees  but even if it’s an idea whose time has come, the road to implementation will be long and arduous.

Our Roadmap for Income Security provides a parallel route that works within the existing system to make it a much better place. If an income guarantee does become the preferred model, the changes recommended in the Roadmap will be a warm wind at its back.

I am not going to review what’s in the Roadmap here. I encourage everyone to read the full report, the summary and the timeline document to become familiar with its recommendations.

I want to talk about something else – the speed at which the recommendations may be implemented.

Whenever you go into mapping software on a computer, you can set out where you live and your destination. But the map software does not just give you one or two alternative routes, it also tells you how long each route will take. And just like those maps, if the Government agrees with our destination, it may decide to drive down alternative routes that take longer.

This is what I am worried about. Recent debates about the minimum wage have not centred on whether $15.00 an hour is the right amount; the debate is all about how fast we get there.  For this reason alone, the government may decide a more cautious approach to income security reform than the one recommended in the Roadmap.

But here’s the thing.

We already worried and worked long and hard on the trajectory of reform in our own deliberations and tried to make the first three years as palatable as possible to all stakeholders including activists, recipients, and the government itself.

Let’s look at this through the lens of the OW single rate. We recommended a rate of $893 for year three of reform, up $172 a month from the $721 of today. This represents an increase of about 24%.

But if OW rates had been increased by the consumer price index since 1993 – 25 years ago and dated from the last increase before the Harris cuts – we know that the single rate would now be $1,009 a month, $115 lower and 11% below what we are recommending in three years.

And that’s not all:  the single rate in the basic income experiment is over $1,400 a month while full time minimum wages (37.5 hours a week) now stand at $2,275 a month.

When we take into account that such programs like CPP and Old Age Security have all been increased with inflation over this same time frame, how could we possibly be asking for less?

When I look at rents in my own district of Scarborough, I know that the cheapest apartment goes for $700 and even that price is often unavailable. I also know the rent in an illegal rooming house runs about $450 a month and that means you live on a floor in one of four or five cubbyholes. I know that $893 a month means that realistically, a single recipient can only make ends meet in a rooming house.

Finally there is the ‘business case’ for reform.  The changes in the Roadmap comprise a reasonable but transformative investment  that would not only move us forward on basic needs and social justice. They would also address the reality of poorer health and negative social outcomes as we continue to push so many people to the margins of community life. The upside of these investments is not just how we “feel”. It also must be measured in terms of our economic and  fiscal bottom lines as well as positive social outcomes.

My reason for agreeing with the Roadmap’s trajectory is that I think, by going more slowly in the first three years, we can gain the momentum to do better later. There is also the realpolitik of asking government for significant funds.

In the old days, we used to “ask for the stars and get the moon”.  Nowadays, if you ask for the stars, you often get nothing.

Let’s hope the Ontario government understands just how ‘reasonable’ their Roadmap team has been.