Latimer: An alternative to welfare may help Canadians

Canada ranks 17th for overall well-being and did poorly when providing the basic necessities for children.

In Canada we have many reasons to be thankful. We live in a vast and beautiful space and enjoy freedoms and luxuries many in the world can only dream of.

Still, there are some areas in which Canada could stand to improve. A recent article in Maclean’s magazine shared some of the stats from a UN agency report on the status of Canadian children. In this report, Canada was ranked in comparison to 28 other industrialized countries and we didn’t score as well as you might think.

We came in 17th for overall well-being and did poorly when it came to providing the basic necessities for children to grow into healthy and productive adults. In terms of health and safety, including vaccination rates and infant/child mortality, we ranked almost dead last—in 27th place.

We are in the bottom third for relative child poverty.

Actually—poverty is said to be at the heart of many of our health problems. In past columns I have written about the negative health effects of poverty. It is probably the single biggest predictor of poor health.

That is not news—and yet what are we doing to reduce or eradicate poverty in Canada? According to the Maclean’s article—Canada has had a relatively stable poverty rate for 30 years with between 11 and 14 percent of Canadians living below the poverty line.

A growing number of people are starting to advocate for a change in our approach to this issue. One idea that warrants further investigation is a guaranteed annual income or negative income tax.

This would replace our current welfare system and would ensure Canadians had a certain minimum income. Those not earning enough from their work would see their income topped up through the tax system to a designated minimum amount. Unlike welfare, which is clawed back when people get employment or attend school, this money would be a grant to be spent as Canadians chose.

Of course, critics of this idea say it would result in laziness and people losing the motivation to better their employment circumstances.

Proponents of this idea believe it would bring positive results on several fronts. Not only would a negative income tax replace the paternalistic and oppressive welfare system we currently have, but it would lower administrative costs substantially by delivering through the existing tax system and it would also reduce the negative health impacts of poverty.

These potential positives have garnered a growing number of advocates from all political backgrounds.

We do already have a similar system in place for seniors in Canada. Implementing the guaranteed income program for seniors brought this country’s poverty rates among the elderly way down. We now have some of the lowest poverty rates for this age group—compared with some of the highest for child poverty.

In the 1970s a pilot project in Manitoba tested the guaranteed income model and new research examining its health effects found that even modest income security decreased hospital visits by 8.5 percent and also significantly lowered doctor visits and mental health issues among those participating.

I think a program such as this should be tested on a larger scale to determine if it may prove more beneficial than our current social assistance program. It could just revolutionize the way we treat poverty in Canada—and by extension could improve many aspects of the health and well-being of our citizens.

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