A Senior Moment – “A Hand Out or a Hand Up?”

John was 14 years old, had lived all his young life in subsidized “Ontario Housing,” with the family’s basic needs provided since his birth by “welfare.” I met this boy and his lone-parent mother many years ago through my work as a family counselor in an Eastern Ontario city.

     Rev. Bob Johnston

John had never owned a bike. While it was certainly not my role to find him one, I felt sad for the teen’s plight and, through a contact, managed to obtain a used bicycle in excellent condition, freely donated by a generous citizen. I subsequently took the gift to the boy. While I nether expected nor required that he would fall to his knees in gratitude, I did anticipate some sense of appreciation. Instead, here is what transpired:

“John, I have brought this bike I told you about. Someone has wanted you to have it.”

“Yeh, just put it over there.” His eyes never strayed from the tv program he was watching.

Back in the office I made notes of this client encounter as required of social workers. I documented the transaction and John’s reaction but left unsaid my concern: is life on welfare assistance already so ingrained, that he assumes society will automatically and perpetually look after him?

In the same city, letter carriers were on strike. It was winter and a deep snow had fallen overnight. Driving to work next morning , I noticed a long line of welfare recipients lined up outside City Hall waiting to pick up their cheques which normally would have been delivered by mail. Many of those waiting were strong-looking young men.

On that trip to the office, I passed many residents shoveling snow off their driveway and sidewalk. I noticed how elderly and fragile some of these struggling old people were. The incongruity suddenly hit me: why were these senior-age taxpayers, whose taxes paid for local welfare benefits, laboring in heavy snowdrifts while the able-bodied beneficiaries of their tax dollars smoked and happily chatted while awaiting their government cheques?

On the (proverbial) other hand, I have witnessed many welfare recipients who climbed out of poverty despite the hard knocks that life had tossed their way. Some returned to school for upgrading. leading to employment. Others—women dependent on Mothers Allowance after being abandoned by their husbands— bravely managed to keep their families fed and clothed, out of trouble and doing well in school, despite living on meagre monthly cheques. For the vast majority of welfare recipients, a government cheque was, reluctantly, the only option when serious illness or long-term unemployment struck and savings ran out.

Which brings me to the concept of the Ontario Government’s guaranteed basic Income plan (GBI) discussed in my last column (August 5.) Based on a controversial assumption that recipients would get a free ride at the expense of hard working taxpayers, like those two earlier-mentioned examples illustrate, right-of-centre voters might reject such a basic income plan. But is there another side to the story, an insight that would placate even those sceptics?

First of all, a one year trial may not be sufficient in length to determine the validity of a GBI. Recipients will likely use their initial first year payments to clear away past accumulated debts. The second year’s benefit cheques might be used for education or vocational upgrading. Admittedly, neither of these activities will return money into the market.

By the third year, newly-employed men and women will be spending their GBI on new purchases, thus injecting dollars back into the economy and creating further employment opportunities for others who grow, manufacture or sell those items.

A GBI will reduce poverty. Low incomes have been positively associated both with crime and poor health. By reducing poverty , society should see lower rates of expensive incarceration and hospital care, bringing savings to taxpayers.

With the increased rapid advent of automation, many jobs will inevitably disappear in our county, leaving workers unemployed and unemployable. Rather than relying on a cumbersome and costly bureaucracy—welfare workers, social insurance administrators, it may well prove more economical and efficient to simply provide everyone with a basic income. Monies injected into a GBI will ultimately be reinvested into the economy. Despite its inherent practical and ethical problems, Is there any better way to care for one another in a compassionate society?