“The three-year study of no-strings attached payments is not the answer Ontario families need. Ontario will focus resources on more proven approaches,” said a July 31 government press release announcing the end of the pilot program and other changes to Ontario’s social assistance system.  Pixabay

Cathy Majtenyi: Basic income study meets untimely end

By 
  • August 22, 2018

It was a made-in-Ontario experiment based on a concept put forth by such thinkers as Conservative Canadian Hugh Segal and American free-market advocate Milton Friedman: a basic income guarantee, something like Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement. 

Last year, 6,000 low-income people in and around Hamilton, Brantford, Thunder Bay and Lindsay were selected to participate in the Ontario Basic Income Pilot, a provincial government study led by researchers, experts and academics from St. Michael’s Hospital and McMaster University.

Some 4,000 participants received $16,989 per year for a single person and $24,027 per year for a couple, less 50 per cent of any earned income. People with a disability got up to $500 per month on top. These payments replaced Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). 

The other 2,000 participants in the “comparison group” did not receive basic income.

During the three-year study, the researchers were to have regularly surveyed recipients’ educational, housing, employment and health situations and compare those to the situations of participants not receiving basic income. 

This was to test whether basic income — in this pilot’s case, unconditional payments to reach a minimum income level adequate for fulfilling essential needs — would be a more helpful support than a patchwork of specific, lesser-paying social assistance programs, each with their own criteria, conditions and restrictions. 

Proponents have a number of arguments in favour of basic income, including: eradicating welfare fraud, since payments are granted automatically; streamlining government bureaucracy, as administering one payment is a simpler process; and ensuring a more secure safety net for everyone because some vulnerable people fall through the cracks when dealing with a complex bureaucratic system.

Sadly, we will no longer be able to gather and use scientific evidence to determine the effectiveness of basic income.

“The three-year study of no-strings attached payments is not the answer Ontario families need. Ontario will focus resources on more proven approaches,” said a July 31 government press release announcing the end of the pilot program and other changes to Ontario’s social assistance system. 

How the Doug Ford government can declare a program ineffective without the proof of data is mystifying.

Indeed, past research has yielded promising results. In one similar field experiment called “Mincome,” conducted in the 1970s in Dauphin, Man., University of Manitoba researcher Dr. Evelyn Forget reported that participants receiving basic income experienced an 8.5-per-cent reduction in their hospitalization rate compared to the control group; fewer doctors’ visits, especially for mental health; and more adolescents continuing to Grade 12.

“We conclude that a relatively modest GAI (Guaranteed Annual Income) can improve population health, suggesting significant health system savings,” she wrote.

A University of Calgary-led research team found that Canadians 65 years and older experience half the level of food insecurity that low-income Canadians under 65 years of age encounter, leading the researchers to conclude that: “Seniors’ public pensions, as an example of GAI, are an effective poverty reduction strategy.”

If the former government’s social assistance system was flawed, wouldn’t it be prudent for the new government to explore, and implement if found to be effective, a potentially more efficient and cost-saving system?

The issue lies in the program’s core concept. Social services minister Lisa MacLeod told reporters that “money without strings attached” dampens the incentive to work, get “back on track” and be “productive.” 

But that contradicts some of the pilot’s anecdotal evidence. Consider Roland Singleton, a homeless man in Thunder Bay who, shortly after beginning the program, moved into secure housing, completed his first year of an electrician program in college and is set to start a placement in September. 

Or Hamilton resident Alana Balzar, who was able to buy a new winter coat for the first time ever, applied to college and started looking for a part-time job. Or Sherry Mendowegan, a mother of two in Thunder Bay who was applying to study at Confederation College, “something that would have seemed impossible a year ago.”

Regardless of recipients’ spending choices, basic income fulfils the fundamental goal of ending extreme poverty, narrowing the gap between rich and the poor.

And that gap is very real. In Canada, two businessmen — David Thomson and Galen Weston Sr. — own as much wealth as about 11 million Canadians. In Hamilton, residents in the wealthy west Mountain neighbourhood have a life expectancy of 86.3 years. Meanwhile, people living in the poor North End neighbourhood live to an average 65.5 years.

Our Church, and our faith, calls us to create a just and fair society. Exploring options to create this society must be our priority. 

(Majtenyi is a public relations officer who specializes in research communications at an Ontario university.) 

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