Guaranteed minimum income just 'inspiration' in new Quebec government report

The report, prepared by a three-person committee formed by Premier Philippe Couillard last year, suggests a series of reforms to social assistance and greater incentives to encourage people to enter the workforce.

Committee of experts lays out 23 recommendations, falls short of recommending basic income for all

The idea of a basic income — which guarantees everyone has enough money to meet their basic needs, regardless of work status — has gained traction in recent years. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The idea of a guaranteed minimum income serves as a "source of inspiration" in a long-awaited report released Monday that falls short of recommending the Quebec government test the idea.

The report, prepared by a three-person committee formed by Premier Philippe Couillard last year, instead suggests a series of reforms aimed at strengthening social assistance and encouraging people to enter the workforce.

"Today, in its purest and most comprehensive form, guaranteed minimum income is often considered a utopia. If that is the case, then for this committee, that utopia is a source of inspiration," Dorothée Boccanfuso, chair of the expert committee, said in a statement.

Proponents of guaranteed minimum income were hopeful the idea would be piloted in Quebec after Couillard put François Blais, minister of employment and social solidarity, in charge.

Blais, a former academic, wrote a book espousing the concept in 2001 called A Basic Income for All.

The idea of a basic income — which guarantees everyone has enough money to meet their basic needs, regardless of work status — has gained traction in recent years, with supporters on all sides of the political spectrum.

Proponents on the left argue it represents an opportunity for greater redistribution of wealth, while those on the right see it as a chance to cut back on red tape and give more control to individuals.

Ontario, Finland trying it out

Ontario is testing out a variation of the idea, with 4,000 low-income earners in three communities being given a basic annual income of $17,000.

Finland is also experimenting with the concept. A total of 2,000 citizens who receive unemployment benefits will get 560 euros ($782 Canadian) a month over the two-year trial.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced a basic income pilot program earlier this year. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Most Canadian advocates of such programs point to an experiment carried out in Manitoba, dubbed "Mincome," between 1974 and 1979.

The trial was conducted in Winnipeg and in the small community of Dauphin, with Ottawa picking up three-quarters of the $17-million budget. About 1,000 families got monthly cheques under the pilot project.

Evelyn Forget, professor of community health science at the University of Manitoba, found the project improved the overall health of residents.

A 'troubling' recommendation

The Quebec report, titled Guaranteed Minimum Income in Québec: A Utopia? An Inspiration for Québec, lays out a total of 23 recommendations aimed at addressing the problems of "equity, efficiency and incentive to work."

One of the recommendations is to establish a benchmark based on the so-called basket of goods and services, which represents the total cost of basic needs such as food, shelter and clothing.

In 2017, for a person living alone in Montreal, for example, the basket is calculated to be $18,012. Social assistance is currently estimated at $9,389, or 52 per cent of the basket. 

François Blais, Quebec's minister of employment and social solidarity, wrote a book called A Basic Income for All in 2001. (Francis Vachon/Canadian Press)

The report says social assistance should be limited to between 50 per cent and 60 per cent of the basket. Beyond that benchmark, recipients would be less inclined to enter the labor market, the report says.

Serge Petitclerc, a spokesperson for the Collectif pour un Québec sans pauvreté, said the recommendation is "troubling."

The Couillard government, he said, has consistently prioritized policies aimed at getting people into the workforce rather than addressing issues that drive people into poverty.

According to Petitclerc, the underlying message is: "If they are poor, it's their fault."

In a statement, Parti Québécois critic Harold Lebel said it appears the government gave the committee a mandate that would produce the recommendations it wanted, centred around increasing participation in the labour force, and do little to lift thousands of Quebecers out of poverty.