A basic income—the idea that the government should give people money to live on with few strings attached—is often seen as liberal or even lefty policy. According to business executives fighting to save a cancelled basic income pilot in Ontario, though, it’s a plan that conservatives can get behind. They’re right.
The Ontario pilot began in July of last year under the Liberal administration and ultimately enrolled 4,000 people across the province. After the Progressive Conservatives took power in June, Ontario Premier Doug Ford swiftly cancelled the pilot, outraging proponents and people enrolled in the program. The reasoning was the usual conservative line: Too expensive, and not the answer for Ontario families. The final payments will be made in March, not even two years into the pilot’s planned three-year scope.
Now, a group calling itself “CEOs for Basic Income” has released an open letter calling on Ford to keep the pilot going.
The letter, signed by 100 Ontario business executives, states that their support for a basic income in Ontario comes from “enlightened self-interest” because it would “replace inefficient welfare programs, encourage work” and result in people having more money to spend on the goods that they produce or sell. Depressed wages and a disappearing middle class make “left vs. right views on welfare reform and laziness” obsolete, the letter states.
Floyd Marinescu, CEO of C4Media and co-author of the letter, spelled out the implication more clearly in a statement to the Toronto Star. “I hope Progressive Conservatives read the letter and see that [a basic income] is a good thing for the economy, that it is a conservative-leaning approach,” Marinescu told the Star. Even more explicitly, in an August podcast linked at the bottom of the open letter, he said, “I truly believe that [basic income] is a conservative idea.”
Basic income? Conservative? While this might seem to be an odd characterization, it actually exposes the ideological foundation of the Ontario pilot. Far from helping us along to a post-work, automation-driven society, the pilot entrenched the status quo.
Read More: Basic Income Is Being Set Up to Fail
The Ontario pilot is certainly more generous than the miserly Ontario Works welfare program, which currently gives individuals up to $343 per month to live on. With a basic income, individuals who make under $34,000 annually received up to $1,400 per month. This is no doubt an improvement, but the program only topped up people’s income to 25 percent under the national low-income measure, and decreased by 50 cents for every dollar earned at a job. A “basic” income, sure, but a living wage it was not.
Under the basic income program, participants also had to get off of existing social assistance—including disability support—to receive lump-sum monthly payments. If you were on disability support and enrolled in basic income, you received a bit more money every month than you did before. But you also had to give up government assistance for medical devices, which would now be an out-of-pocket expense. In this case, the pilot did indeed promise to “replace inefficient welfare programs,” as the CEOs for Basic Income open letter states.
It’s worth noting that, in the US, the conservative argument for basic income-like programs is basically a way to do away with many current social supports such as food stamps or housing assistance. The only place in the US that’s actually implemented a basic income-like policy, Alaska, is dominated by conservative politics.
Do I think the pilot should remain cancelled, as Ford has decreed? No. The current welfare system is miserly and overbearing, and a basic income would be an improvement. On top of this, cancelling the ongoing pilot was an act of cruelty towards the people who trusted the government enough to enroll in the first place. Last year I went to Hamilton, one of the pilot’s host cities, to talk to pilot participants, and they told me that it gave them stability and more opportunity.
What CEOs for Basic Income has done, though, is correctly identify the Ontario pilot as a conservative, status quo-maintaining project. Conservatives should love it, unless conservatism is now synonymous with cruelty (and it might be, judging by what’s going on in the US).
Many leftists have already soured on basic income pilots like the one in Ontario—and for good reason. After this, nobody should have any illusions about Ontario’s basic income as being a transformative project, or one that seeks to re-balance society’s unequal distribution of money and power at all.
But it’s better than what we’ve got. Sigh.
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