Politics killed Ontario’s basic income pilot project, but it was working

By: Pam Frampton

The metaphorical writing is on the wall and it’s hard to miss, and that’s because it’s in huge red letters, all capitalized: PEOPLE IN OUR COMMUNITIES ARE STRUGGLING.

I don’t like to shout, but it’s clear that some people with power and influence are not hearing this message.

Walking through the supermarket, we are all too aware of having to spend more to buy less. Package sizes are shrinking while prices are steadily rising. More and more people have no choice but to avoid fresh fruits, meats and vegetables and stick to the processed food aisles.

Is it any wonder that last week’s HungerCount 2022 report from Food Banks Canada showed that many Canadians’ cupboards are truly bare?

Think about the people behind this statistic: 1.5 million food bank visits in Canada in March 2022 alone. It’s a staggering figure, especially given that unemployment rates were at an all-time low.

When you consider that more than one-quarter of those food bank visits were by people either working or receiving a pension, and half were receiving some sort of government support, it’s clear that income and benefits have not kept pace with inflation.

Ordinary citizens know it and community non-profits certainly do.

Governments say they know it, too, but offering a one-time cost of relief benefit of $500 or $1,000 after at least three solid years of household financial erosion is not even enough to call a stop-gap measure.

There are real cost savings to be had, but not only that, an accrual of self-esteem and dignity.

The top three reasons why people used a food bank in the past year? Low social assistance rates, the price of food and the cost of housing.

Just when people thought the worst of the pandemic’s financial hits had passed, the bad economic times just kept on coming.

No wonder “permacrisis” is Collins Dictionary’s word of the year.

Consider the facts

It’s time for governments to seriously consider implementing a basic income program.

Yes, I can hear the arguments — it’s too expensive; it discourages people from working; it’s just another bleeding-heart handout.

But let’s separate feelings from facts and look at some of the findings from Ontario’s basic income pilot project.

A project, I might add, that was a casualty of shortsighted party politics. In 2017, Ontario’s Liberal government rolled out a three-year basic income program to 4,000 people, with an evaluation team ready to analyze the results. When Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives took power in 2018, they scrapped the program and any analysis of it, just 18 months in. Fortunately, researchers from McMaster and Ryerson universities followed up with 1,000 basic income participants in the Hamilton area to produce “an incomplete yet informative overview” of the project’s impacts.

The results were overwhelmingly positive, with participants (ages 18 to 64) reporting better physical and mental health, improved eating habits and a more positive frame of mind.

Single people received up to roughly $17,000 a year (with up to $500 more per month for those with disabilities), while couples received up to $24,027 per year. Fifty cents was deducted for every dollar of earned income.

I can’t reproduce the findings here, but you can find the report here.

Here are some highlights:

• Every participant said they benefited in some way.

• Nearly 80 per cent reported improvements in health.

• More than 80 per cent reported better mental health, and less stress, anger and feelings of depression.

• 86 per cent had a more positive outlook on life.

• Nearly 80 per cent felt more motivated to find a better-paying job.

• Roughly 85 per cent said they were better able to afford clothes and essential household items.

People who are living more stable lives with a secure food supply, a happier outlook, better relationships, improved health, and with greater prospects for the future, are less likely to need government services, including health care.

There are real cost savings to be had, but not only that, an accrual of self-esteem and dignity.

As the report concludes:

“The results suggest that the stability basic income provides can help recipients move to better paying employment and to play a fuller role as citizens in society.”

If there’s a lesson here — apart from the outcomes of the pilot project — it’s this. Political parties need to accept that just because a program is proposed by their rivals doesn’t mean it’s a bad one.

Governments need to think long term for the greater good of society, and not just about political wins and hollow victories.

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