By PAT WATSON
It is a common saying that the measure of a society is how well it takes care of its most vulnerable. If that is the way to measure a society, then let’s be clear that ours does not prioritize the most vulnerable. In fact, the evidence is that vulnerable people are punished when they are in difficulty.
Who are the vulnerable? People who for any number of reasons have not been able to secure employment and are therefore dependent on social welfare subsidies; street involved people who are struggling with addiction or harmful self-medication; health-impaired elderly; families fractured by children’s aid organizations. These are but a few groups that are dragged down by the laws and regulations that in effect punish them for not being able to swim in the mainstream of society.
For instance, this city actually tickets people who panhandle on the streets. To protect the sensibilities of those who are managing on their own, the government continues to have police issue tickets that carry fines. For asking for spare change, beggars on the streets of this province are facing fines in the thousands of dollars.
That legislation, not surprisingly, was brought in by the Mike Harris Progressive Conservatives more than 20 years ago, yet the Liberal government that has been in power for long enough now has not seen fit to do away with a program that costs the City of Toronto alone one million dollars annually to maintain.
It is demonstrably a waste of money and police resources. It is, simply put, busy-work for officers. It does not prevent panhandling but sets in motion the mechanism for the latest version of debtors’ prison.
Here’s how to save the city and the province that money: Speak to your member of parliament and let that politician know that this legislation must be rescinded. In the meantime when asked for spare change by a panhandler, if you don’t have any or choose not to give up those nickels, dimes or quarters, just say “sorry” and keep moving.
Another piece of entanglement aimed at the vulnerable has to do with how families receiving welfare support are penalized when a child or children are removed from the family home by a children’s aid organization. Since dependents would not then be living with them, parents are immediately penalized in the form of welfare payments reduction, making them vulnerable to becoming homeless since payments go largely to shelter.
These are only two examples.
The answer across the board must be a universal basic income that lifts all lives.
The province is about to run a pilot project to explore the feasibility of a universal basic income program. My fear is that those involved in setting up the pilot project will – consciously or unconsciously – design it in such a way as to destine it to fail. Yet, a study already exists that shows how well a universal payment program can work. The project in the small farming town of Dauphin, Manitoba, which ran for five years in the mid to late 1970s, was a success by many measures. Improvement was shown in health outcomes, in family relationships, in decline in job related stress, and in lower school dropout rates. Furthermore, the people receiving the payments did not quit their jobs.
If we can figure out ways to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, we can surely design a program for universal income that would benefit the entire society. If we start from a place of making the goal that everyone receives equitable payment then the way will be found.
Any explanation for how or why it can’t or won’t work would be about maintaining the status quo. Ask the person begging on the street with $65,000 in fines for panhandling hanging over his head whether that is good enough.
A note on U.S. presidential debates…
In the battle of the blonds, more commonly known as the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, what now passes for American political culture again shamed that nation for the entire world to see. Great TV ratings winner though.
Pat Watson is the author of the e-book, In Through a Coloured Lens. Twitter @patprose.