An all-party committee is tackling the question of whether basic income could work in Newfoundland and Labrador

By: Malone Mullin 

An all-party committee is tackling the question of whether a basic income program could work in Newfoundland and Labrador, and it expects to make its recommendations as early as next summer.

Social Development Minister John Abbott said the group of politicians invited a national basic income advocate to offer advice to the committee Monday afternoon.

Abbott said the committee — comprising Abbott, Labour Minister Bernard Davis, Liberal MHA Sherry Gambin-Walsh, PC MHA Craig Pardy, and interim NDP Leader Jim Dinn — is examining a wide range of possible basic income models.

“I think it reflects the sense — and potentially consensus across the country — that the time has come now to look at these issues in a broad way,” Abbott said in an interview Monday afternoon.

“Families are struggling.… Some of our programs aren’t really meeting their needs. It needs a new approach. “

Basic income can take various forms, but the underlying principle remains the same: that each resident of a specific jurisdiction unconditionally receives a minimum amount of money each year to live on.

Some models ensure every person, no matter their financial standing, receives the benefit. Those who earn more than a set threshold pay it back in addition to their usual taxes.

Other models, like one piloted in Ontario in 2017, issue the benefit only to those with low income. But unlike most social assistance programs, the basic income benefit tops up earnings, rather than disappearing dollar for dollar once the recipient begins making money.

Targeted basic income would offer a supplement cheque only to specific groups, and already exists countrywide, Abbott said, pointing to federal programs such as the Canada child benefit and guaranteed income supplement for seniors.

“That’s been a success story,” Abbott said. 

“We have the child benefit and that certainly helped bring families out of out of poverty. So what other measures do we need … to really pull people out of poverty, make sure that they have financial security, which we know would lead to better health and well-being?

“We’re trying to make sure we get the policy design right, and then come up with the programs to go with it.”

A universal basic income, meanwhile, would apply to all residents. Abbott says a program like that would require federal help to get off the ground and would cost “hundreds of millions” initially.

‘On the right track’

Basic income proposals in Newfoundland and Labrador have gained steam over the last two years, beginning with an NDP-led motion to strike the committee.

In 2020, federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh voiced his support for Newfoundland and Labrador’s interest in the program.

The province is already dipping its toes in the water, announcing last month it would introduce a targeted basic income program for youths exiting care. The program provides participants more than $600 a month and costs the province $3 million annually.

“Some of the things that the Newfoundland and Labrador government have already done are on the right track, like moving towards making things more unconditional, fewer rules,” said Sheila Regehr, co-chair of the Basic Income Canada Network.

Regehr spoke to the committee Monday, offering insight on movement across Canada toward basic income policies. 

“They recognize, I think, there are tweaks they can make,” Regehr said.

Abbott said the basic income program for youths exiting care would serve as a test run for future potential programs and help craft policy.

“We’ll adjust the parameters of the program as we as we move forward, as we learn, and we’ll be evaluating the design impact that it is having,” Abbott said.

“We’ve titled it the basic income approach, and so that’s I think for us to start on this road. It could be a long road, could be a short road — we don’t know.”

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