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The Manitoba Liberal Party pledged on Tuesday to eliminate poverty in Manitoba by 2024, a lofty goal party leader Dougald Lamont insisted was realistic.
Lamont said the Liberals would do it by instituting a minimum basic income, reforming Employment and Income Assistance, boosting the minimum wage from $11.35 to $15 per hour by 2021, and implementing a voluntary work program in the mould of then-U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration from the 1930s. It's a set of ideas that would require a $700-million increase over current annual EIA spending, which is $600 million.
"I know there will be questions about the cost of this to the public purse, but we also have to look at the costs of poverty, and they are astronomical," Lamont told reporters at Bonnycastle Park.
Lamont said the number of Manitobans on EIA had risen each year since 2008; currently, 71,000 adults rely on the service at a cost of $600 million annually. He also pointed to the $500 million used to provide support for children in care as a cost which would decrease through the Liberal initiatives.
The minimum basic income the Liberals proposed is largely based on a pilot project run in Dauphin in the 1970s, which provided the town’s low-income residents with a guaranteed source of income. Any adult whose income falls below the minimum basic income — which the Liberals tentatively pegged at "18 or 19,000" pending analysis — would be eligible to apply for a top-up, which recipients would be allowed to use however they prefer. The Green Party’s basic income plan — a $1.58-billion policy —begins at $7,200 for single adults.
"After the initial investment, we expect this to cost an additional $700 million per year," Lamont added. "By the third or fourth year, the ‘mincome’ project should be paying for itself."
As for the current EIA mandate, Lamont called it "sadistic and ineffective," lamenting that many basic allowances hadn’t been adjusted accordingly to modern standards. However, the Liberals also plan on allowing those who prefer the current system — including adults with intellectual disabilities — to continue to use it, leading to a gradual transition rather than an abrupt changeover.
The job program, entitled Manitoba Works for Good, would provide an alternative to EIA, wherein people are paid to do work in public service for government or an approved non-profit. It’s based in part on Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration, which revitalized a devastated labour force through a variety of public work projects.
Michael Barkman, chair of Make Poverty History Manitoba, a coalition aimed at eliminating poverty, called the Liberal announcement "super encouraging," adding the organization was pleased to see three parties — the Liberals, the NDPs, and the Greens — advocating for basic income and a $15 minimum wage.
"EIA has only been increasing in the amount of people using it," said Barkman. "It’s a program difficult to escape." Barkman said the voluntary job program was a solid development, as was the move to lift the welfare wall, but MPHM continues to advocate for a more comprehensive poverty reduction plan.
Sid Frankel of Basic Income Manitoba praised the plan for its universal, unconditional nature, but said it maintains current assistance rates that are too low to purchase goods and services needed for a "healthy, dignified life."
"So, the basic income (proposal) will not meet the adequacy criterion," he said.
While the Conservative party didn’t respond to a request for comment, an NDP spokesperson said that party would also implement a $15 per hour minimum wage, improve EIA rates, and transform the program into a basic income model, eliminating the welfare wall. The NDP has yet to announce a jobs plan detailing those policies.
"The Liberal plan unfortunately fails to reverse Pallister’s cuts to Rent Assist, provide new supports for medication coverage and keep utility bills low, all of which must be addressed in order to truly eliminate poverty in Manitoba," the spokesperson said.
The Conservatives rebutted Lamont's criticisms, with a spokesperson telling the Free Press that the current government plan is working and saying the Liberal proposal lacks supporting evidence.
The spokesperson highlighted the Conservatives’ $2020 tax rollback, which doesn’t contain provisions specific to fair income or jobs, but does include several tax reductions on items like home insurance and will preparation. Additionally, the Conservative spokesperson drew attention to the party’s portable child-care benefit, a measure focused on lower income families.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.