Nenshi pushes guaranteed income as Canadian mayors gather for poverty summit

nenshiCalgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi says governments must use more innovative tools — particularly guaranteed annual income — to address systemic poverty, as municipal leaders across Canada gather in Edmonton for a three-day summit on the issue.

While minimum income has gained traction and attention in recent months among policy-makers, the NDP government appears lukewarm to the idea and more intent on pursuing other means to prevent and reduce poverty.

“(It) is an intriguing idea, but not something our government is looking into at this time,” Human Services Minister Irfan Sabir said in an email.

The conference, called Cities Reducing Poverty: When Mayors Lead, features panel discussions with municipal, provincial and federal politicians, child advocates and community leaders on best practices, co-ordinating efforts and sharing plans.

“If you talk to non-profit organizations and agencies about their poverty record, you’ll hear great, great stories of huge impacts people have made with individuals and families,” said Nenshi, who is scheduled to speak at the conference Wednesday.

“But the societal rates of poverty have hardly shifted in more than a generation (and) child poverty in particular remains stubbornly high,” he said.

At last year’s summit in Ottawa, Nenshi and Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson pitched the idea of the two cities being the testing ground for a guaranteed annual income or negative income tax.

Those schemes effectively roll social programs into a single form of support for people living below a certain income threshold, and provide supplemental pay from government. Social advocates and economists have long promoted the notion as a more cost effective method of tackling poverty.

In the 1970s, Dauphin, Man., flirted with the idea when it guaranteed its citizens a minimum income during a short-lived trial run that ended without an official final analysis.

Nenshi, a longtime advocate of a guaranteed annual income, says it would reduce the number of patchwork social programs and provide a more simplified and secure financial safety net for citizens with low income.

“This issue is one that is perpetual,” he said. “But I think we are in a policy environment right now, perhaps brought on by the economic downturn, where people are willing to experiment a little bit more.”

In his keynote address Tuesday, Sabir said all levels of government, community organizations and businesses must co-ordinate their efforts “if we want to make a positive and meaningful difference in people’s lives.”

He said the NDP government is committed to “comprehensive action” and partnering with communities to support Albertans living in poverty, highlighting the decision to hike Alberta’s minimum wage, freeze post-secondary tuition and crack down on predatory lending practices.

“We will help people through these difficult times,” he said.