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Two diverging recommendations from a standing committee tasked with examining the possibility of a basic income guarantee on P.E.I. may prove to be a fault line between advocates and politicians over the next steps for the anti-poverty program.
A basic income guarantee (BIG) is an anti-poverty program in which all adults would be given a no-strings-attached government cheque if they are below a certain income threshold. The idea, seen as an improvement over social assistance to advocates, has seen increasing support in recent months from politicians of all stripes. P.E.I.’s all-party special committee on poverty recently recommended its implementation in P.E.I. as a test case for all of Canada, estimating the net price tag to implement it would be $260 million.
But the report also included a backup plan. If the federal government declines to partner with P.E.I.’s government over implementing a BIG, the report recommended implementing a pilot study of the basic income guarantee, involving between 3,073 and 4,176 participants. The cost of this pilot project would be between $19.5 million and $26.5 million per year.
Marie Burge, a member of the P.E.I. Working Group for a Livable Income, says she was pleased with the report from the committee, but was critical of the recommendation around a pilot program.
"What they're offering political leaders is something that we should not be offering them, and that's the line of least resistance," Burge said. "After all the work that has been done on basic income guarantee, and even in the past year, this has been multiplying all across the country and around the world, it's just tiresome that right now we should even be talking about a pilot."
Other groups that spoke before the committee, including the P.E.I. Council for People with Disabilities and the Mi’kmaq Confederacy of P.E.I., also called for the implementation of a full BIG on P.E.I.
UBI vs. BIG
- A universal basic income would involve every adult receiving a set amount of money from government. Higher income individuals would then have it taxed back.
- A basic income guarantee would involve every adult earning below a certain income receiving an amount of money from government. The focus would be on those with lower incomes.
Last week, Premier Dennis King said he supports the idea of a basic income and has had initial discussions with the federal government. He did not specify whether he plans to advocate for a full program in P.E.I. or for the implementation of a pilot program.
“I think that if the national government was willing to partner with one province, this would seem to be the province where we could be a good laboratory," King said in a media interview. "I haven't been given any indication that the federal government wouldn't be open to looking at doing something if they were presented with a reasonable option.”
There have been two basic income pilot programs in Canada so far, one implemented in Manitoba in the 1970s, and one in Ontario that lasted between 2017 and 2019.
Charlottetown MP Sean Casey said there is significant interest within the federal Liberal caucus about implementing a basic income guarantee, as well as “some interest within the cabinet".
"I expect we'll be into an election before too long. We're going to need to build a platform. We're talking about ‘build back better'," Casey said.
Casey said he and Malpeque MP Wayne Easter have had preliminary discussions with staff in the Prime Minister’s Office and with some members of Cabinet about BIG.
But Casey said his preference is for a more modest pilot program in P.E.I.
"We should set our goals modestly and I would think that we'd be more likely to be able to sell a pilot than something more full-blown," Casey said. "It's really, really easy to say no to something that's bigger and more elaborate."
Burge said a pilot program in P.E.I. would simply not be enough to eliminate poverty. She pointed to the quick roll-out of large-scale income relief program like the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) as evidence that a basic income guarantee can be done.
“They can find the money and they will find it if they have the will for it," Burge said.
Stu Neatby is the political reporter for The Guardian.