Welfare study shows need for guaranteed income



1.7 million Canadians are forced to rely on welfare, including 500,000 children.

Dateline: Monday, September 11, 2021

by Senator Hugh Segal

Canada's on-again, off-again relationship with a guaranteed annual income (GAI) has made the rounds for many years. The most renowned recommendation for the GAI came out of the 1985 report of the Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada, chaired by Donald Macdonald, known as the Macdonald Commission.

The report stated unequivocally that a universal income security program is "the essential building block" for social security programs in the 21st century. A guaranteed annual income or basic income is the concept of a floor income provided on a continual basis varying on family size, age, and other sources of income.

Poverty is rarely, if ever, a choice.

Now, more than 20 years since Macdonald's recommendation, the newly released report by the National Council of Welfare paints a scathing picture of the assistance programs currently available in Canada to our neediest Canadians. It concludes that those on welfare were actually worse off in 2005 than they have been since the late 1980s when the council began tracking the numbers. According to the report, 1.7 million of our fellow Canadians are forced to rely on welfare; more than 500,000 of these people are children.

The first official proposal for a GAI in Canada was made in 1971, by the Castonguay-Nepveu Commission in Quebec, which proposed a three-tiered income security program for Quebec. Later that year, the Special Senate Committee on Poverty proposed a uniform guaranteed income to cover Canadian families living in need.

In 1973, the federal government published its Working Paper on Social Security in Canada. This became the basis for the social security review of the 1970s, and eliminating poverty and providing an acceptable minimum income for all Canadians was a substantial part of the review.

In the 1980s many policy documents appeared in support of fundamental reform: the 1984 Quebec White Paper on the Personal Tax and Transfer Systems, the 1985 Macdonald royal commission, the 1986 Newfoundland Royal Commission on Employment and Unemployment, the 1987 Forget Commission on Unemployment Insurance, and the 1988 Ontario Social Assistance Review Committee, along with numerous other reports from private and social agencies.

For more than 30 years, I have been a relatively lonely Conservative proponent for a guaranteed annual income, or a basic income floor. I do not believe that, in a country such as Canada, fellow citizens must live so far below what we consider a poverty line that they are unable to provide the basic necessities of shelter, food and clothing for themselves and their children. And based on the current allowances provided by the welfare system, I also refuse to accept that people purposely choose to avoid employment in order to subsist on such a paltry income.

Individuals who turn to welfare do so as a last recourse. Whether the situation is the result of abuse, job loss, lack of education or training, addiction or single-parent households, our duty as Canadians and human beings is to guarantee an income that allows people to provide for themselves and their families while affording them a level of dignity that boosts confidence and inspires hope.

Detractors of a guaranteed annual income will invariably point to its price tag. However, the municipal, provincial and federal governments are currently footing the rather hefty price tag of poverty as it translates into health care costs, an overburdened judicial system, a myriad of social services that often duplicate each other and the basic loss of human productivity.

And then there is the prevailing, subjective assessment of the welfare recipient. As the Council on Welfare report points out, the stigma attached to, and the perception of, those on welfare has in some measure inured us to the harsh realities of their plight. From a patronizing perch some have taken permission to ignore the human toll taken by poverty. In our rush to judgment, we paint all welfare recipients with the same brush to smugly justify our inaction.

Surely the time has finally come to seriously consider a guaranteed income, financed by the money now in innumerable other programs. It is time to simply recognize that to be a Canadian should mean to be free of the fear that inadequate food, shelter, clothing, recreation and basic necessities of life cannot but impart.

Poverty is rarely, if ever, a choice. Tolerating its worst consequences in a society awash in surpluses federally, provincially and in the private sector is an abomination.

Senator Hugh Segal is a Conservative member of the Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, whose study on rural poverty begins this fall. He first came forward as a proponent of a guaranteed or basic income at the 1969 Tory Thinkers Conference in Niagara Falls, when he was 19 years old.

Former Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister of Canada and Associate Secretary of the Ontario Cabinet, Hugh Segal is one of Canada's better-known public policy experts. Since 1999, Hugh Segal has been President of the Institute for Research on Public Policy of Canada and has taught at Queen's University Schools of Policy Studies and Business since 1993. Hugh Segal currently resides in Kingston with wife, Donna, and their daughter, Jacqueline. He will be sitting in the Senate as a member of the Conservative Party of Canada.