Councilors of the small Ontario town of Smiths Falls voted on December 19 last year to reject participation in its province’s basic income pilot, to the objection of residents and the town’s mayor. A petition requesting a re-vote is currently circulating online. The story begins, however, in 2008.
That year The Hershey Company shuttered its Canada operations, at the time based in Smiths Falls, largely for cheaper Mexico-based labor. This exit of the area’s biggest customer precipitated the same by other businesses, and although the ensuing purge of jobs merely reflected a manufacturing decline already underway in the province, the disappearance of five hundred positions at Hershey’s alone, accounting for nearly 6% of the town’s population, catalyzed especially forward-looking pain. That year the town operated at a surplus of C$11.2m, and by the town’s most recent reported fiscal year, its once budget excess had trudged through increasingly tight leverage to a deficit of C$1.3m (albeit improved since 2013). Today the town struggles with unemployment above the national rate, and a third of children live below the poverty line.
Given also an aging population and petering labor force – per census data the town’s median age increased by 2.1 years in the five years leading up to 2011, and the overall population declined by 2% – it could be in the interest of Smiths Falls’ residents to entertain a basic income system. Indeed the petition created by resident Carol Anne Knapp has so far gathered 113 supporters, with a goal of one thousand. This is despite the council’s three-two vote, with two councilors absent, against mayor Shawn Pankow advocating to Ontario’s finance minister for participation in the program. Pankow has meanwhile expressed interest in holding a public meeting on the topic this month, health officials in tow.
A prominent councilor, Dawn Quinn, cast one of three “nay” votes. According to Jordan Pearson, writing for Motherboard, her vote was at least partly informed by her credo of frugality, stating that “folks sit around in Tim Hortons all day instead of looking for jobs, and they should consider buying a tin of Tim Hortons coffee to make at home instead of buying a cup.” On that point Pearson continues, “[Quinn added] they could consider shoveling snow to earn some extra money.” Similarly conveying Quinn’s underlying sentiment, Kate Porter quotes her in CBC News: “They need to be able to learn how to take that money and stretch it […] we need more of that kind of thinking.” So it appears the belief that basic income causes squander was, at least for one decision maker, a reason for the council’s vote outcome.
There is, however, some evidence from a bordering province that suggests this perspective is dogmatic, as reflected in Knapp’s petition letter requesting that a “new vote be based on science and evidence.”
Nearly forty years ago, Dauphin, a similarly small town in the Canadian province of Manitoba, underwent a five-year minimum income (dubbed “mincome”) experiment. Mincome was also similarly basic income-lite. Rather than a true guarantee, which is regardless of preexisting income status, mincome subsidized only those poor enough and was reduced for those who earned above a threshold. Likewise, Ontario’s pilot makes whole those earning below a set threshold. Even so, the experiment provides refutation to Quinn’s apprehension of lethargic congregations at Tim Hortons.
According to Evelyn Forget, an economist at the University of Manitoba and academic director of the Manitoba Research Data Centre, primary earners in Dauphin worked only marginally less within the five-year study, and much of the other reductions in labor force participation was comprised of women who extended maternity leaves and male high school students who simply stayed in school rather than work. Additionally, hospitalizations, in particular for mental health problems, dropped significantly (nearly 9% across the board) and would alleviate the burden on healthcare programs today.
Quinn acknowledges, though remains unpersuaded by, the Manitoba findings and is further dissuaded by cost – a concern currently aggravated by budget shortfalls. She protests that Smiths Falls became financially saddled after a 1970s investment in low-to-moderate income (LMI) housing, giving rise to her concern about opting into another government-borne program. A ten-year housing plan published in 2014 by Lanark County and Smiths Falls, however, notes that 74% of the county’s dwellings requiring major repairs were constructed prior to 1971. Coupling two observations then – 60% of LMI housing was developed under the program to which Quinn is referring; and renting in lieu of owning has been on the rise since Hershey’s departure – the 1970s investment appears to have provided an arguably necessary safety net.
Expenses, furthermore, reflect precarity when business output, curbed by economic disempowerment of consumers, constrains municipal revenues. In pursuing a conservative bottom line, rejecting basic income has a potentially truncating effect on the top, and budget woes thereby persist. On this, councilor Lorraine Allen, one of two “yea” votes, says the proposal would enable residents to “shop more, buy more groceries, perhaps be more involved in things that they couldn’t before.” Hence her vote for the program.
Still, the short-lived nature of the pilot is consistent with another of Quinn’s concerns: that a pilot implemented, then taken away, could prove negligibly meaningful. In the town’s 2015 operations approximately C$2.4m was spent on social and family services. Tucked inside these costs were, in addition to unspecified uses, assistance to the elderly, childcare and the social housing expenses which Quinn resents of the 1970s. If the Ontario program follows the recommendation by former senator Hugh Segal (a monthly allowance of C$1,320), the combined cost to eligible individuals could perhaps exceed the town’s existing social and family services expenditures. This mainly reinforces the need for cooperation between municipality and province-level governments to realize success from basic income. Eating the full burden, what Ontario offers is more generous than that. But in order for such a program to live past a test phase, the council of Smiths Falls would first have to heed the needs of its residents – and try.
Thanks to Genevieve Shanahan for reviewing this article.
Cover photo by wyliepoon.
More information at:
AreaScore, “Smiths Falls unemployment,” 2016.
Carol Anne Knapp, “Smiths Falls council reverse the decision regarding basic income,” Care2 Petitions, December 21, 2016.
City-Data, “City data of Smiths Falls,” 2011.
Evelyn Harford, “Basic income pilot project a no-go for Smiths Falls town council,” InsideOttawaValley, December 20, 2016.
Jesse Ferreras, “Ontario basic income should be $1,320 per month, adviser says,” The Huffington Post, November 4, 2016.
Jordan Pearson, “Why a struggling town voted against a basic income,” Motherboard, December 22, 2016.
Kate Porter, “Smiths Falls residents fight for guaranteed income pilot project,” CBC News, December 22, 2016.
Lanark County, “Lanark County and the town of Smiths Falls ten year housing and homelessness plan 2014-2024,” 2014.
Sarah Gardner, “On the Canadian prairie, a basic income experiment,” Marketplace, December 20, 2016.
Statistics Canada, “Census subdivision of Smiths Falls, T – Ontario,” 2011.
The Canadian Press, “Ontario floats idea of guaranteed minimum income to ease poverty,” CBC News, March 14, 2016.
Town of Smiths Falls, “2009 consolidated financial statements,” 2009.
Town of Smiths Falls, “2015 consolidated financial statements,” 2015.