In April 2017, the government of Ontario began providing around 4,000 low-income residents of Thunder Bay, Hamilton, Lindsay, Brantford, and Brant County a basic income. The premise of the pilot, which was meant to last three years, was to understand the effects of equipping people living on little resources with an extra income stream. Under the program, a single person could receive up to $17,000 in Canadian dollars (minus half of whatever income they already earned), and a couple could receive up to $24,000. People with disabilities could get another $6,000 on top of other payments.
For people like Alana Baltzer, who spoke to Fast Company last year, the basic income pilot was proving transformative. Her diet improved, and she applied to college and several jobs. Growing up in poverty, she said, she never saw a way out until Ontario introduced the program. For Baltzer, the extra stipend wasn’t a chance to sit back and do nothing–one of the common conservative critiques of basic income–but an opportunity to finally pursue a career and education that financial worries had prevented her from before.
But just a little less than halfway through the pilot, the government of Ontario is scrapping the program. In June, the province elected populist conservative businessman Doug Ford as its premier, and on July 31 he reneged on his pre-election promise not to cancel the program, and pulled the plug on a guaranteed support system that thousands had planned on receiving for at least another year and a half.
Lisa MacLeod, the minister of children, community, and social services for the province, delivered the news, calling the program too expensive and “clearly not the answer for Ontario families.”
But the cost of the basic income program, around $50 million per year, pales in comparison to the billions of dollars that poverty extracts in the form of health care burdens, loss of productivity, and social services. The Ontario government said in a press release that it will be exploring new avenues to lift its low income residents–the number of whom has risen by 55% in the last 15 years–out of poverty.
For the people receiving basic income, though, that program was the most effective at countering poverty they had experienced. Jessie Golem, a Hamilton resident who was working four jobs and freelancing at the time she learned she’d receive basic income, wrote a compelling op-ed in The Huffington Post describing how the knowledge that she could pay rent enabled her to invest more time in expanding the operations and capacity of a local nonprofit.
Across Ontario, basic income recipients like Golem, who had found the monthly stipends to be transformative, have been left in the lurch. The Hamilton Spectator collected stories of six people in Hamilton who received extra funds. Steve Pelland, 38, had been homeless and receiving social assistance. Because he could not afford to travel around the city, he struggled to search for and hold down a job. With the basic income, Pelland moved into a rental home and began to plan to go back to college and start learning a trade, which he imagined would then enable him to launch a career and get his drivers’ license back, which would help him look for a job. Without the extra money, he’s had to cancel his plans for school. He’s not sure if he’ll be able to keep renting his place, and he thinks he’ll have to go back to living on social assistance. “I had a plan. I was going to go back to college and get a trade so that I can better myself so that I can provide and help out in the community,” Pelland said. “Now I’m scared because I may end up homeless again.”
The devastating refrain underpinning all of these stories was best summed up by Lindsay resident Catherine Webb Widjedal, who wrote to The Lindsay Advocate to say that the people she knew receiving basic income were “hard working people in low-paying jobs,” who had “planned the next three years of their lives on this monthly money.” As Golem wrote, the basic income program enabled people living in poverty, often for the first time in their lives, to look out on a stable future for which they could plan deliberately, rather than being so swept up in trying to provide for their immediate needs. The program was shaping up to enable people to live healthy, productive lives and contribute to society–and as such, pay for itself.
The Ontario basic income program was not the only one in the world–pilots of varying scope are underway in Stockton, California, and in Kenya. Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur campaigning for the U.S. presidency, has a $1,000 a month basic income as a major part of his platform. But the Ontario pilot was one of the largest and most comprehensive, and just halfway through, was seeing tangible results. By scrapping the program, Golem writes, Ontario is damaging progress made on furthering the conversation around basic income and transformative social services. For governments to adopt new, seemingly radical approaches like basic income to help their poorest residents, they have to have proof of concept that the approach works. Ontario was shaping up to be that proof of concept, but in ending the program, its regrettably setting itself–and the whole concept of basic income–back, while leaving hard-working people to suddenly readjust their expectations for their financial future