PEI

If not now, when? Budget surpluses could fund basic income pilot, says advocate

A day after the P.E.I. government revealed it posted a $57-million operating surplus in 2018-19, the executive director of the P.E.I. Council for People with Disabilities told a legislative committee Friday there’s no better time for the province to try to wipe out poverty.

‘The iron is hot,’ committee told as it looks for ways to measure, eliminate poverty

The special committee on poverty has been tasked with developing a costed plan for a basic income guarantee pilot project for P.E.I. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

A day after the P.E.I. government revealed it posted a $57-million operating surplus in 2018-19, the executive director of the P.E.I. Council for People with Disabilities told a legislative committee Friday there's no better time for the province to try to wipe out poverty.

"If we don't address poverty now, when are we going to do it?" Marcia Carroll asked members of the province's special committee on poverty. 

"Seriously. We need to ask ourselves that question."

The committee has been tasked with developing a costed plan for a basic income guarantee pilot project for P.E.I. While that idea has been talked about for years, the previous Liberal government concluded it couldn't be done without financial support from Ottawa, which has thus far been denied.

While suggesting the new PC government in P.E.I. "push back hard" against Ottawa's refusal to provide funding for a pilot, Carroll also noted the province has never been in a better financial situation to take on a project like this.

"We've got these two years of multi-million-dollar surpluses. This is the time. The iron is hot, as they say. It's time to strike."

Big surpluses, back-to-back

A year ago, the province announced a surplus of $75 million for the fiscal year 2017-18. Both surpluses came in tens of millions of dollars higher than government had budgeted for, largely as a result of tax revenues coming in much higher than what the province's current finance minister has described as "very conservative" budget estimates.

Marcia Carroll, executive director of the P.E.I. Council for People with Disabilities, told the committee that after back-to-back budget surpluses worth tens of millions of dollars, the time is right for the province to develop a basic income pilot program. (P.E.I. Legislative Assembly)

Carroll's pitch was for a pilot program for disabled Islanders, something that would provide them with $2,000 a month to pay for necessities like food, housing and clothing, with additional supports through existing programs to pay for prescriptions and needs related to their disabilities.

Currently, she said Islanders on social assistance, including those living with disabilities, receive less than half that amount for necessities.

"It could be a very profound demonstration project that could give us good data," Carroll said of her proposal for a pilot. "We could see people's lives change."

Social assistance not enough

The poverty committee is in the midst of a series of meetings as it looks not only to set up the parameters for a basic income pilot, but also to develop clear measurements to define poverty and a living wage on P.E.I.

Another group presenting to the committee Friday expressed qualified support for a basic income pilot, while also telling the committee the status quo of support provided through social assistance is insufficient.

Alyse Rossiter, right, and Roxanne Carter-Thompson, with The Adventure Group, told P.E.I.'s special committee on poverty that social assistance is not enough to lift Islanders out of poverty. (P.E.I. Legislative Assembly)

Alyse Rossiter with the Adventure Group described her own prior struggles as a single mother of three to support herself and her family while on assistance.

"My mental and physical health was strongly affected by having to live this lifestyle," she told the committee. "You can't afford healthy food so your diet consists of processed food and junk," Rossiter said, adding some days she would go without eating so her children could eat.

"Until you find yourself in that situation, it's very hard to imagine what life is really like living in poverty."

The Adventure Group is a registered charity with the goal of supporting at-risk youth and their parents through personal and skills development.

P.E.I.'s special committee on poverty has been given one year to come up with a costed plan for a basic income pilot program for the province. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

Executive director Roxanne Carter-Thompson told committee members a basic income guarantee "will support some individuals to pay their bills and have a quality of life." 

But she also expressed concerns "about young people ages 18-30 being given money with no conditions or accountability."

"My concern is that it will limit their growth and their ability to reach their potential," Carter-Thompson said, describing young male clients who play video games "all night long."

"They would need support. I would be very concerned if there weren't conditions around [payments], because I think we're setting them up for not a positive experience."

However she said a properly-designed basic income pilot integrated with existing social support programs would have "the potential to change the landscape of poverty in Prince Edward Island."

Cost uncertain

This past summer the committee was given one year to achieve its mandate and report back to the legislature.

One of the most daunting challenges facing the committee is how to provide a cost breakdown of whatever proposal it puts forward to government.

Committee chair Trish Altass said it was too early to say whether the surplus provides any indication the province can afford a basic income pilot, but said whatever the cost, a basic income would be "a worthwhile investment."

"When people are given enough money to live with basic health and dignity, that money is spent in local communities. So it's good for our economy [and] it's good for people."

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