Basic income ‘unlocked dozens of doors for me,’ pilot participant says amid call for national program

‘[Basic income] was a single key that unlocked dozens upon dozens of doors for me'

Basic income 'unlocked dozens of doors for me,' pilot participant says amid call for national program
Basic income 'unlocked dozens of doors for me,' pilot participant says amid call for national program

By Justin Chandler

See original post here.

Basic income was life-changing for Jessica Topfer.

The Cannington, Ont. resident was a student at Trent University in 2017 when then-premier Kathleen Wynne’s government launched the largest basic income pilot North America had seen in 50 years. 

“I was working full-time in addition to my full-time course load, so I was under a lot of stress. My mental health was not great. My social relationships were also not great,” Topfer said. “That first $714 cheque made a huge difference to me.”

It was enough to cover rent and help with some essentials. Soon, Topfer was able to work fewer hours at her part-time retail job, focus on school, and look for work in her field that was too precarious for her to take on before. 

“It was a single key that unlocked dozens upon dozens of doors for me in terms of education and employment.” 

As the Senate considers a bill that would require the creation of a national framework for basic income, supporters in Ontario say the stories of pilot participants make it clear basic income works.

“When decision makers turn to us and say ‘we don’t have evidence; we don’t have a basis,’ we do,” Wynne said in Hamilton last month. 

On Oct. 27, she was one of many supporters who met at Hamilton’s Central Library to discuss new research on that pilot and the future of basic income advocacy.

What is basic income?

While there are variations on its implementation, basic income generally describes a policy in which the government gives individuals unconditional cash transfers to meet basic needs. 

In the pilot — which Doug Ford’s provincial government canceled in July 2018, before it finished—about 4,000 participants in Hamilton, Lindsay, Ont. and Thunder Bay, Ont. earning less than $34,000 received just under $17,000 annually. The amount decreased by 50 cents for every dollar an individual earned through work and couples received just more than $24,000. People with disabilities received an additional $6,000. 

“I wish we had put the pilot in place the moment I became premier,” Wynne told a group of about 50 people, since that would have prevented its early cancellation. She said that’s one of the things that keeps her awake at night.

“We don’t all start at the same place,” Wynne said, reflecting on the idea that people are responsible for their own wealth or lack thereof. “Life throws shit at us and we have to deal with it. Policy doesn’t always take that into account.” 

New research finds basic income recipients felt more dignified

The new basic income research is a qualitative study by Carleton, McMaster and Toronto Metropolitan universities. It follows up on earlier work based on surveys and interviews with pilot participants, which found people continued to work and became healthier while receiving payments.  

For example, researchers found:

  • 33 per cent of respondents said they reduced visits to health practitioners during the pilot
  • 83 per cent reported improved mental health
  • 86 per cent said they improved their diets
  • 75 per cent said they were better prepared for financial emergencies
  • 69 per cent reported spending more time with loved ones

The new report identifies themes based on how interviewees said basic income changed their lives. Authors write it made participants feel more dignified, proud and confident, allowed them more agency in how they spent their time and money, and did not seem to disincentivize work. 

Tom McDowell, who worked on this and other basic income reports, said he expected to hear more negative stories than he did. “Almost every single person we spoke with used basic income in a positive way to improve their lives … [the program] worked precisely as it was meant to.”

For Kendal David, who worked on the report and is co-chair of the Basic Income Canada Youth Network (BICYN), “reading the volume of stories was impactful in a way that nothing else I have been involved with in basic income land ever has been.” 

These stories are evidence just like stats and numbers, she said. “You can really see the ways that basic income impacted the everyday nooks and crannies of people’s lives.” 

In their interview, one participant told researchers: “It was nice for me to choose my own glasses with the basic income. The glasses I am wearing came from the opposite side of the optical store where the ODSP glasses were. I made damn sure that they were better quality.”

David said often, conversation around basic income is limited to labour market impact, but what people really wanted to talk about was being able to afford things like nice glasses, their child’s favourite food or a new mattress.

“A lot of the things that people talked about had to do with having real choices because they were able to survive and get by.”

How basic income led to more opportunities for one participant

Topfer said she was privileged relative to other basic income recipients, but that basic income carried her farther than she could have gone without it. She’s now the interim executive director of food security non-profit The Nourish and Develop Foundation, and says that although speaking about one’s experience with social assistance can come with a lot of stigma, it’s important to advocate.

Topfer contributed to a zine David and her BICYN co-chair Chloe Halpenny produced based on the new report and then distributed to schools, libraries and elected officials throughout the country.

“When I was receiving basic income, the cost of living wasn’t nearly as bad as it is today,” she said. “But as you see more and more folks unable to afford the basics to be able to live, it’s becoming more pressing that we implement basic income and other income based solutions to poverty.”

Calling for action

David said the BICYN worked closely with Senator Kim Pate on the basic income bill the senate finance committee is looking at. As CBC News has reported, NDP member of parliament Leah Gazan submitted an identical bill to the House of Commons, but neither bill would actually implement basic income if passed.

At the event in Hamilton, one attendee, Ursula Samuels, put up her hand to call for action. “It brings tears to my eyes when I walk around Hamilton and see what’s going on,” she said, pointing to poverty and unaffordable housing. “I think we should stop all the talking and get back to basic income.”

Brantford, Ont. resident Janette Strong says the need in Ontario is pressing, since current social supports are insufficient. She works as a wellness and lifestyle consultant and receives Ontario Disability Support Program payments. “It’s not enough to meet the monthly needs of a person,” she said (recipients can receive about $1,300 per month depending on their situation).

Recently, Strong called into CBC’s Ontario Today to voice her support for basic income. Such a program could be less bureaucratic than existing social assistance, she told CBC Hamilton. And for her, it would offer a sense of security. Strong is about to age into provincial support for seniors, which she says will mean an additional $400 per month. 

“I should be able to get by with that more comfortably,” she said. “But still it’s so modest that if something happens to my car or some other item that costs more to buy every now and then, I couldn’t afford the payments.” 

“With a livable income across the board, it could be better,” Strong said. “People can’t wait anymore.”

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