Basic income would require 'transformation' of social supports, committee hears

Members of the P.E.I. Working Group for a Livable Income laid out a blueprint for a basic income guarantee in the province, speaking Thursday in front of a new legislative committee tasked with exploring the issue of poverty.

MLAs given 12 months to develop fully-costed plan for basic income pilot

A new legislative committee looking at poverty on P.E.I. has begun consultations to develop a costed plan for a basic income pilot — something all parties have voiced support for, but has never gained much political traction. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

Members of the P.E.I. Working Group for a Livable Income laid out a blueprint for a basic income guarantee in the province, speaking Thursday in front of a new legislative committee tasked with exploring the issue of poverty.

"Basic income requires a transformation of the system we have now," Ann Wheatley told members of the committee.

Wheatley is with the Cooper Institute, a social advocacy group and part of the larger Working Group for a Livable Income, which for the past 15 years has been delving into the issue of how to assure Islanders' basic needs are met.

"One of the most important principles is that basic income guarantee be grounded in human rights as opposed to charity," Wheatley said, asserting that "the right to an income that supports people to live in good health and with dignity is a human right."

The province's special committee on poverty was struck during the recent sitting of the legislature with unanimous support from all parties. The committee is collecting public input after being given 12 months to develop a fully-costed plan to implement a basic income pilot on P.E.I.

Unanimous support, with little to show for it

It's been three years now since MLAs from all parties provided unanimous support for a motion to seek the federal government's help in launching a basic income pilot on P.E.I.

When the federal government offered to provide logistical support, but made no offer to provide funding for the pilot, the previous Liberal government under Wade MacLauchlan appeared to shelve the idea.

Ann Wheatley and Jane Ledwell, from P.E.I.'s Working Group for a Livable Income, spoke to the legislature's new special committee on poverty Thursday about the need for a basic income guarantee for the province. (P.E.I. Legislative Assembly)

Facing a similar situation, the Ontario Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne embarked on its own solo pilot without federal funding, only to have the project scrapped when Doug Ford's PCs came to power.

The P.E.I. Green Party included a commitment for a basic income pilot in its 2019 platform, and introduced the motion which led to the creation of the new poverty committee.

Current system 'demeaning and disrespectful'

Relying on social assistance as a means of support has led to a system "based on paternalism, which judges who is deserving, invades people's privacy, is demeaning and disrespectful of people," Wheatley said. 

She told the committee a basic income would need to be "universal and unconditional and it would be available for all adult residents of Prince Edward Island, subject to income but regardless of work status or relationship status."

Jane Ledwell, executive director with the P.E.I. Advisory Council on the Status of Women, said existing support programs don't provide enough to cover basic needs. 

Ledwell said a basic income would need to provide "enough to pay rent or mortgage and monthly utility bills, to buy nutritious food and medicine, to use transportation, to continue learning, to access child care or eldercare, to participate in the community and to cover emergencies."

Cost will lead to 'sticker shock'

While the idea of a basic income pilot for P.E.I. has been talked about for years, so far there's been no government estimate of what such a program might cost.

Ledwell said some costing done elsewhere, including a national estimate by the Parliamentary Budget Office in Ottawa, has led to "sticker shock," but said a basic income program would lead to eventual savings in health and justice.

"Money exists in the public system for public priorities," she said.

Committee member Hannah Bell, who's been pushing government to move forward with planning for a basic income guarantee, says she's 'cautiously optimistic' discussions are moving in the right direction. (P.E.I. Legislative Assembly)

But she said the province would need to have the federal government on board as a funding partner, because the program would have to incorporate federal supports, which already operate as their own basic guaranteed incomes, like old age security for seniors and the child tax benefit for families.

"I think Prince Edward Island has some power in this federation, and I think that other provinces are also, and territories even … maybe interested in basic income guarantee," Wheatley told the committee. "I think that could be an area where there could be some advocacy at the federal minister's level."

'Good initial conversation'

Green MLA Hannah Bell has been pushing for basic income, voting against the first budget put forward by the minority government of PC Premier Dennis King because it didn't include funding for a commission to study the issue.

She said the new poverty committee will face limitations an independent commission would not — for example, it has no funding to hire staff to collect or analyze data — but she said she's "cautiously optimistic that we're having a good initial conversation."

She noted in its first throne speech the King government vowed, with some input from the Greens, to try to eliminate poverty rather than work to reduce it.

"That's really critical that we speak about it from that context," she said.

"We are not going to be able to move forward as a province if we don't address the need for all Islanders to live dignified, secure lives."

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Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature.