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Ontario’s basic income was working amazingly well before it got canceled

A study of the pilot program–scrapped last year by the province’s conservative government–found that people were using the money to turn their lives around.

Ontario’s basic income was working amazingly well before it got canceled
[Photo: Austin Censor/Unsplash]

Last year, shortly after conservative Doug Ford was elected to lead the Canadian province of Ontario, the government canceled the revolutionary basic income pilot it had been running since 2017. The program, which gave 4,000 low-income Ontarians up to C$17,000 a year, was testing the idea of giving people unconditional cash payments. Its sudden cancellation created enormous problems. For the people who were enrolled in the program, the payments they expected to receive for three years were cut short after one, and they were left scrambling to make new financial plans. And for the basic income movement on the whole, the loss of a potential source of data and research on the effects of the program was a significant disappointment.

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Though Ford’s administration abdicated responsibility for analyzing the results of Ontario’s truncated pilot, the Basic Income Canada Network (BICN), an umbrella organization that advocates for basic income programs across the country, was keeping tabs on the program and its outcomes. BICN recently released those unofficial results, derived from surveys of 424 recipients conducted after the program was canceled last year.

In the report on the results, BICN makes it clear that even in the short duration of Ontario’s program, the benefits of basic income were pronounced. “Our survey results are clear and compelling indicators, or signposts of success, that basic income leads us on a much better path than the one we are currently following. No matter what issue or problem is our focus, from food security or mental health, to precarious work, or the future of our economy, basic income is a critical part of the solution,” the BICN board of directors writes in the introduction to the report.

To put some data to those signposts of success, BICN found that the extra money enabled people to take charge of their lives in new ways: Around 32% of recipients went back to school or received new job training to start a different career, and 9% started a new business or expanded an existing one. One-third of respondents were able to stop relying on food banks for meals, and around 75% said they were able to make healthier food choices.

Around 46% of respondents paid off outstanding debts, and almost all reported feeling more financially stable and prepared for emergencies–significant, given that around 40% of people in the U.S. would not be able to cover a $400 emergency. One recipient described how the extra money allowed him to pay off debt to the city and avoid foreclosure on his home. Around 60% of the participants were able to improve their housing, either by completing outstanding repairs or relocating to a better place.

Non-financial benefits also proliferated. Rates of people volunteering in their communities went up. Some respondents said the extra money helped them start exercising and focusing on their health, and many said they were able to spend more quality time with their families and friends. Around 88% of people saw their stress levels decline, and rates of depression dropped 73%. (For a comprehensive look at some of the most compelling data points from the report, the basic income advocate Scott Santens created a thread on Twitter to capture them.)

What’s frustrating about the unofficial results gathered by BICN, Santens tells Fast Company, is that they only represent 9% of the participants in the enormous trial. That’s not enough to lend the results scientific weight, but it’s still not hard to see “how much of a difference it was making in the lives of real people,” he says. It seems likely that had all 4,000 recipients been able to be surveyed, the data would’ve reflected similar but more scientifically robust trends.

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The profound positive effect that even the truncated basic income program in Ontario had on people’s lives “is a bright, neon-lit sign shining in testament to the reality that people lack the bootstraps to pull themselves up by,” Santens says. “You can’t just tell people to lift themselves up with nothing. They need something. And when they get that something, especially when it’s in the form of cash without strings, people pull themselves up because they finally actually can.”

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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