Regent Park Residents Weigh in on Ontario's Basic Income Pilot Project
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Regent Park Residents Weigh in on Ontario’s Basic Income Pilot Project

Feedback continues until January 31.

Photo by Alex McKeen.

Photo by Alex McKeen.

Mike Connell has a strong opinion on how to cook the perfect steak. A cook for the Yonge Street Mission, he enjoys his job and is quick to say so.

He also has an opinion about basic income, which is what brought him to the Christian Resource Centre (CRC) Regent Park Community Food Centre on January 18, for the CRC-hosted Basic Income Pilot Consultation.

“If it doesn’t affect my ODSP [Ontario Disability Support Program],” Connell says, then “I’m all for it.”

The government of Ontario announced its intention to hold a Basic Income Pilot project in the 2016 budget. This was followed by a detailed report by former senator Hugh Segal on how the pilot should be executed in order to measure the idea’s potential for success within the province’s Poverty Reduction Strategy.

Although the exact meaning of the term ‘basic income’ can vary, the idea is that citizens in a basic income jurisdiction are guaranteed a minimum level of income with ‘no strings attached,’ in theory affording greater discretion to those who would otherwise rely on social assistance payments while having no adverse effects on higher earners.

The government is hosting a series of consultations in communities around Ontario this month that will inform a plan for a Basic Income Pilot Project, which the government intends to have ready by April. It is also soliciting feedback online until January 31.

Although Toronto retains the unenviable title of ‘child poverty capital’ of Canada, and the Regent Park area has the highest rate of child poverty in the country at around 58 per cent, the Ontario government did not plan a basic income consultation in the downtown core.

This is the main reason Justine Barone, CRC’s community advocacy coordinator, cites for holding an independent consultation at the CRC. “I don’t feel like the government at all did this on purpose but I think that you know [the province-run consultations were] incredibly difficult for people to access, and so my primary motivator… was to ensure that people in Regent Park, and also Moss Park and St. Jamestown—because we did have some representation from those neighbourhoods as well—had an opportunity to give their feedback.”

The CRC consultation drew 46 attendees from these areas. They were asked to give feedback on the eligibility, site, design, delivery, measurability, and privacy of the project, as well as to provide additional feedback based on their own experiences.

Some of the input provided at the meeting could have been anticipated, like the idea that in order to be effective, basic income payments would have to exceed the money offered through existing social assistance programs.

Other contributions dug deep at the meaning of poverty reduction. A prevailing theme echoed by many participants was that poverty, far from being defined by a level of income, has much more to do with access to resources, the freedom to take risks, mentality, and stigma. Participants widely agreed that a potential benefit of basic income would be its levelling effect, since, in theory, it would be available to everyone.

Conversely, the government’s pilot project will likely only be made available to a single community, which limits the experiment’s data. This reality left participants like Connell only cautiously optimistic about the idea.

“I’ll believe it when I see it… ‘Pilot’ means it’s not for certain,” he said. “Let’s see if it works and if it does then we can expand it. So let’s wait until we say we’re going to expand it before everyone gets on their high horse.”

Segal’s report recommends that the pilot project take place over a period of at least three years, meaning that the decision of how to proceed on basic income in the province overall is both a long way away, and likely to be under the purview of a different provincial government.

Barone is hopeful that the idea of basic income will be picked up beyond the pilot period, calling it an idea in its “moment” of recognition as jurisdictions around the world reckon with the stresses on existing welfare systems, and the social and health costs associated with poverty.

She is also hopeful that the government will come to see Regent Park as a candidate for the pilot project site.

“I’m not convinced that Regent Park will be picked but I do think that it’s a really great candidate because it has a tonne of diversity,” she explained. “Regent Park has… the diversity, and all different kinds of people, and lots of different family types, and so I think that the neighbourhood really hits a lot of the indicators that Senator Segal said that he was looking for in his report.”

For the CRC’s part, discussing basic income fits its mandate because advocacy on behalf of Regent Park is part of the organization’s “DNA,” Claire Barcik, CRC Executive Director said.

The CRC was founded over 50 years ago by a Rosedale United Church group. In 2014 the group helped open the not-for-profit housing facility at 40 Oak Street, which is also home to the Community Food Centre.

Barcik says that the community advocates program run by the CRC, as well as the organization’s connections to “lots of local people of influence and politicians,” are crucial to the organization’s advocacy role.

The important part of events like the basic income consultation, according to Barcik, is that “people with lived experience of poverty have an opportunity both to understand initiatives and to voice their opinions about it.

“Very often they will point out challenges with an initiative that we wouldn’t know because we don’t live in their world.”