It’s a mistake to cancel basic income—programs like it helped me become a doctor
The Ontario government of Premier Doug Ford recently announced the cancellation of the basic income trial in Ontario. Since mid-2017, the program has been providing people living on low income with up to $16,989 per year (up to $24,027 for a couple), and an additional $6,000 if they live with disabilities. (Those who are employed could still be supported with up to 50 cents for every dollar earned.) Although hesitant at first, 4,000 people from Hamilton, Thunder Bay, and Lindsay enrolled to receive the monthly payments.
This was the first and largest North American trial of basic income in over 40 years, and jurisdictions from around the world were watching to see whether Ontario would be able to use it to successfully address poverty and its many negative downstream effects. The study would have measured outcomes in food security, stress and anxiety, mental health, health and health care usage, housing stability, education and training, and employment and labour market participation. The design, delivery, and evaluation of the trial were guided by former Conservative senator Hugh Segal; internationally renowned psychiatrist and scientist Dr. Kwame McKenzie was named special adviser. When it was cancelled, the three-year trial was nearly one-third of its way to completion.
Cancelling the trial is a mistake. Thousands of Ontarians have suddenly had their incomes slashed, and this loss of livelihood will be disastrous. Income is the most important social determinant of health—diabetes, heart attacks, and suicide become far more common without adequate income. Jodi Dean, a mother of three whose 10-year old daughter has epilepsy and severe osteoporosis, said that the basic income gave her family “the breathing room to not have to stress to put food on the table.” Withdrawing basic income risks suffocating families, caregivers, and children who were benefiting from the income security.
Many of the benefits of basic income have already been documented, including for health, education, economic activity, income security, and families. And while the outcomes of this trial will not be available, anecdotal results suggest that people’s lives were improved in ways that are significant, life-changing, and life-affirming—the opportunity to go back to school, improve their mental health, afford rent to come out of homelessness, pay for health insurance, visit the dentist, and seek employment. These payments were the difference between going to the food bank and buying fresh fruits and vegetables for 53-year-old Lindsay Boyd. Angel, a 56-year-old-woman, was able to start paying her bills and transitioning out of sex work.
There is plenty of evidence for the merits of programs akin to basic income. For example, across Canada, poverty among seniors declined from 28.4 percent in 1973 to 5.4 percent in 1997 after eligibility for Old Age Security was reduced from 70 to 65 years of age and the Guaranteed Income Supplement (a further monthly benefit for low-income seniors) was introduced. More recently, 12.9 percent of Canadians have been found to be living on incomes below the low-income cut-off (LICO), a relative indicator of poverty, while in contrast, less than six percent of Canadians over the age of 65 are living on incomes below this threshold, further testament to the benefit of OAS and GIS. The prevalence of food insecurity was found to be cut in half (from 22.8 to 11.6 percent) at age 65 as a result of eligibility for OAS and GIS. Similarly, child benefits in Canada such as the Ontario Child Benefit have demonstrated evidence of improving emotional and behavioural well-being, including mental health for children and their mothers, physical aggression, and a reduction in hunger.
I should know. I was myself a child whose family depended on the Ontario Child Benefit. I was raised almost solely by my mother, an amazing woman who worked hard every day—at McDonald’s, at Walmart, at minimum below-living wages—and depended on the monthly benefit as a hand-up to help raise her children. It was very difficult to pay the rent in Toronto, and we moved six times by the time I was 17 years old. One time my mother, nearly in tears, shared that she wasn’t sure how she would pay the rent when I turned 18 and aged out of the benefit. The basic income that our family received helped provide an equality of opportunity that may be the only reason I am able to call myself a doctor today. How many people have benefited as I did? And how many thousands—and millions—still could?
The Minister of Children, Community and Social Services, Lisa MacLeod, said that the program wasn’t working and that it was a disincentive to work. She may be correct. Although we have evidence from smaller studies, similar programs, and anecdotes, we do not know what the outcomes of this particular trial would be. The cancelled trial was not active long enough to generate the data we need to evaluate its success.
Ontario should pledge to resume it. And if not Ontario, Ottawa could provide the funding and continue the study for the remaining two years, as they have been urged to do.
There are a number of things that we can do. We can write to Lisa MacLeod and urge her to reverse her decision. We can write to Jean-Yves Duclos, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development for the federal government, and ask him to fund the adoption and continuation of the study. We can also write to local MPPs in Ontario and MPs nationally to advocate for the basic income trial in Ontario and in other municipalities, provinces, and territories across Canada.
Our efforts now could help continue this campaign for a national policy and leadership that might just move the world forward. As described by Hugh Segal, a basic income could “change the lives of millions of Canadians—our fellow citizens, our neighbours, members of the Canadian family.” As it did for me.
Rahat Hossain is a resident physician in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto.