5 things you need to know about guaranteed income

The Ontario government is trying out a basic income program later this year, and is asking the public for their ideas. Here's what you need to know before Tuesday's consultation in Ottawa.

Minister for community and social services in Ottawa Tuesday evening for public consultation

The Ontario government is trying out a basic income program later this year, and is asking the public for their ideas. The consultations come to Ottawa Tuesday. (CBC)

When Smiths Falls councillors voted late last year against lobbying the provincial government to be considered for the upcoming guaranteed income pilot project, the decision set off a maelstrom in the struggling eastern Ontario town.

On Tuesday the debate moves to Ottawa where officials from the Ministry of Community and Social Services will hold a public consultation session about the pilot project they hope to launch later this year.

If you're not familiar with the province's plan to try out the concept of a guaranteed income, here are five things you should know.

1. What is a guaranteed basic income?

It's actually pretty self-explanatory: the government guarantees that all adults who meet the income criteria receive a basic amount of money to live on. The federal Guaranteed Annual Income Supplement for low-income seniors is often cited as an example of a type of guaranteed basic income.

Usually, a guaranteed basic income — "basic income," or BI in government shorthand — would replace other poverty-reduction programs that often come with lots of red tape and strings attached. The idea is that the government would make unconditional payments and recipients would decide how to spend it, whether it's on better housing, food, education or job training.

The BI is also supposed to cost less to administer compared to other government income programs.

2. What's this pilot all about?

Last year, Premier Kathleen Wynne's government asked former Conservative senator Hugh Segal, currently the master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, to prepare a report on how the Ontario government might try out the guaranteed income concept.

Segal's report calls for a program that would end Ontario Works and Ontario Disabilities Work Program payments and replace them with a "modestly more generous basic income," based on 75 per cent of the low-income threshold for those on social assistance, with an additional $500 per month for those with disabilities.
A man in a suit stands at a podium.
Former senator Hugh Segal's report on guaranteed basic income was released in August. Among his recommendations is a three-year pilot project to test the effectiveness of such a program in Ontario. (Kevin Frayer/The Canadian Press)

But "generous" is a relative term: the differences in payments could be significant for the recipients. For example, an individual on Ontario Works could see his or her annual income double to almost $17,000. An individual on ODSP might see his or her income jump to almost $23,000 from $13,500.

The Segal report  also calls for changes to rules that claw back income supplements once recipients start to make any income, thus reducing the incentive for those on government programs to find jobs.

Segal recommended a three-year pilot allow for the measurement of certain outcomes, including whether recipients see improvements in health, life and career choices, education, food security and work prospects. In short, the pilot should gauge how effectively, if at all, BI helped lift recipients out of poverty.

3. Where will this be happening?

That's part of what the consultations are all about. Provincial officials are asking people if they're interested in the basic income program, and if they'd like to see it tried in their community. The Ontario government isn't taking applications per se, but is accepting letters of interest from municipalities.

It makes sense that the government wouldn't want to force this experiment on an unwilling community, which is why some residents in Smiths Falls were so angry that council voted against the mayor's plan to ask to have the town declared a willing basic income test site. (After hearing constituents argue in favour of the project, Smiths Falls councillors recently reversed their vote.)

In his report, Segal recommended two versions of the pilot be run simultaneously in three communities, one in northern Ontario, one in southern Ontario and a First Nations community, where qualified residents would receive BI. In addition, a control trial would be held in a city where participants would be randomly selected using their social insurance numbers.

No one would be forced to participate, and anyone aged 18 to 64 who meets the income criteria — and had lived in the selected community for at least a year — would qualify. 

4. How will the consultations work?

Officials have been travelling around Ontario for the last few months, asking people about their challenges with Ontario Works and ODSP. They arrive in Ottawa Jan. 24 and will hold a public session from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the Ottawa Conference Centre on Coventry Road.

Minister Helena Jaczek will open the session, and there will be introductory remarks to explain the pilot. Participants will then be asked to break into groups to give feedback on who should be eligible, how the program should be structured, and how it should be evaluated. Officials said these sessions will be closed to the media so participants can feel comfortable sharing their personal experiences.

You'll need to register here if you'd like to attend.

You can also read about the pilot program and fill out an online survey.

5. What happens next?

The consultations are coming to an end this month and officials say a report on what they heard from the public will be made available at the end of February, with the aim of rolling out the project in April. It will be weeks before it's known where the pilot project will take place, and how much it will cost. And provincial officials have not publicly committed to structuring the program exactly as recommended in the Segal report.