Senator reviving idea in hopes of spurring debate on poverty

More than 30 years after one Canadian senator proposed a guaranteed annual income as a solution to the scourge of poverty, another senator is taking up the torch.



Conservative Senator Hugh Segal has asked a Senate committee to again look at the idea that was once proposed by Senator David Croll — and rejected by Pierre Trudeau as being a "good theory," but unaffordable.



Segal is also trying to push poverty onto the national agenda — and into the campaign platforms of the federal parties for an election that could be just months — or even weeks — away.

"I would hope that for all the debates we’re going to have on borders and on foreign policy ... that there would be a national debate on poverty. ... This is a thing that spans political parties," he said.

In an interview last week, Segal noted that the plight of the poor has improved little in the decades since Croll’s efforts. "We have not budged the poverty numbers," he said. "There are still 11 to 12 per cent of the population living beneath the poverty line, worse in the rural areas."

He blames bureaucratic inertia, risk-averse politicians and a lack of national willpower for the lack of a national consensus to find meaningful solutions to the problem.

"Just because we’ve done welfare the same way for 100 years doesn’t mean it’s the best way," he said.

That’s why he’s asked the Senate committee on social affairs, science and technology to study the idea of a guaranteed annual income to lift the poor above the poverty line.

Segal said a guaranteed income would help the working poor who often fall through the cracks.

"These are people who are working really hard, sometimes holding down two or three jobs, but they are not actually getting above the poverty line," Segal said.

"If you don’t have enough money to live, through no fault of your own, (government) just quietly tops you up so you have a base that is enough to get by on."

Segal said the working income tax benefit brought in by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to boost the wages of low-income workers has been a good start.

But he envisages a federal program, operating in co-operation with the provinces, that would provide a base payment to needy individuals, depending on their family size, pay out and where they lived.

He’s hoping the committee will look at the design of the program and perhaps prompt a federal-provincial task force to seriously address the issue.

"The notion that we have not had a first ministers’ meeting on poverty, ever, is in my view an abomination," he said.

cost disputed

  • Segal argues that the income program doesn’t have to cost any more than the maze of municipal, provincial and federal social programs already in place to help the poor, such as subsidized housing and welfare, with inconsistent results.