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Q&A: Conservative elder Hugh Segal on the radical new plan to erase poverty

The former senator believes a guaranteed basic income will cost everyone less in the long run

Q&A: Conservative elder Hugh Segal on the radical new plan to erase poverty
Photograph by Erin Leydon

Last year, you wrote a proposal for a pilot project that would provide select Ontarians with a monthly income of $1,395. Over the summer, the Liberals have been implementing it. Why is basic income a good idea? Because about 15 per cent of Ontarians currently live below the poverty line. And 70 per cent of them have jobs, so it’s not as if they’re sitting on the couch watching soaps and eating bonbons. And we know that poverty is the best predictor of bad health: poor people get sick more often, go to hospital for longer and have more issues with substance abuse, and their kids drop out of school sooner, all of which costs the rest of us huge amounts of money.

Who gets to participate? I wrote the report, but I’m not running the program. To qualify, you must have an income below the poverty line. The Liberals hope to include 4,000 people and will spend about $25 million annually for three years.

We already have a welfare system. How is your proposal better?  However well-intentioned the welfare system is, it’s based on the 19th-century belief that if you are poor, there is some moral failing at play. Also, what the welfare system currently provides isn’t enough.

The poverty line is $1,685 a month for a single person, and you propose a basic income below that. Why? Because it adds incentive to work. At present, if you get a job and earn more than $200 a month, you’ll have that $200 taken out of your welfare cheque. With the basic income pilot, earnings are taxed at 50 per cent: if you earn $600, you receive $1,395 minus $300.

Even if the project proves successful, won’t it be too costly to implement nationally? Well, that’s what the pilot aims to find out. If this were to be brought in on a national basis we might see an extra investment cost upfront of about $30 billion. But you would also start to see all kinds of savings, as people become healthier, live longer and find better jobs. Fewer people in hospital and prison, too.

You’re a former Conservative senator and one-time advisor to Brian Mulroney and Bill Davis. How does a Tory become the poster boy for social assistance? I consider myself a red Tory. I believe in smart government, not big government, and as much personal and individual power as possible. That old notion that welfare recipients spend the money on booze and cigarettes? Most indications show that only three to five per cent of recipients game the system. If the U.S. government was willing to bail out banks and automakers—the wealthiest, the biggest and the strongest—why not low-income people, too?

Sure, but conservatism and government handouts are oxymoronic. What do your right-wing pals make of your proposal? Interestingly, even the most fiscally conservative among them have said to me they think this is something that has to be tried. Some disagree massively, sure, but as Mr. ­Diefenbaker used to say, if we all thought the same way, we wouldn’t be thinking.

What was your own upbringing like? Have you had any personal experience with poverty? I grew up in Montreal. My mother was a cashier at a drugstore. My father drove a cab. I remember him looking at a stack of bills and saying, “Okay, we can pay two.” Many had it way harder than we did, but I understood that there could be a gap between what you need and what you can earn, no matter how hard you try.

You were a teenager in the ’60s, and while everyone was turning on, tuning in and dropping out, you were— Sadly, not doing much of that. I wasn’t into rock and roll or bell-bottoms. I led the Conservative party in the model parliament at my high school. My father was a Liberal campaign worker and my grandfather was a shop steward for a garment workers union.

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So maybe your conservatism was an act of rebellion? I think you may be onto something.

Poverty has been an issue in Ontario forever. Why hasn’t anything like this been tried before? I think it comes down to this: the poor don’t vote, they don’t have time, and it’s very easy for politicians to say, “Why go there?”

What do you make of the suggestion that Kathleen Wynne is pushing basic income to win brownie points ahead of an election? Frankly, I think she is showing courage. Don’t forget that if 15 per cent live below the poverty line, 85 per cent don’t. There are always those who resent money being spent on the minority.

For three years, you have been master of Massey College, working closely with grad students. What has that been like? Millennials are very different from my generation. They seem to start with the premise of “Let’s just be fair to everyone. Why would we care about somebody’s colour or sexual orientation?” They can’t understand why anyone ever did.

I’m reminded of the maxim, “If you’re not a liberal in your 20s, you don’t have a heart; if you’re not a conservative in your 40s, you don’t have a brain.” Young people are more idealistic and less jaded, sure. But I have doctoral students studying health economics who believe that this proposal is a very good thing. I find that most encouraging.

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