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Latest updates 04/11/2019

The final payment in Ontario’s prematurely axed Basic Income pilot (BI) dropped at the end of March, and the casualties are serious. 

Not only are nearly 4,000 low-income people across the province seeing their benefits slashed in half— and wondering how they’ll manage to feed themselves, their families and keep a roof over their heads—we all lose the opportunity to gain invaluable research-based evidence into how to most effectively fight poverty.

One of the people left in the lurch is Jessica, a community member at the Hamilton Community Food Centre. Jessica is chronically ill and wheelchair-bound, but found dignity and well-being thanks to the Basic Income Pilot. She was able to fill her fridge with healthy, energy-rich food instead of relying on cheap, processed handouts that made her more sick.

When we spoke to hear last year, she explained: “I feel better. I’m not dragged down, my energy level is higher. Physically and mentally, everything is brighter to me now. I’m finding it very nice to be able to buy bananas that are not brown and it’s nice to buy a head of lettuce and be able to make a salad.” Without the basic income payments, that fresh food will be once again out of reach. 

Photographer and BI recipient Jessie Golem has profiled hundreds of recipients in her portrait series,“Humans of Basic Income.” In it, they describe the transformative effect the pilot has had on their mental and physical health. Some participants had seen the benefits of BI over a nearly two-year stretch—but the Ford government’s cancellation of the program included ending the evaluation process altogether.

This terrible waste of government resources means important data on how BI affected participants’ health, housing, food security, not to mention family and community relations, could simply be lost. McMaster University researchers have launched an anonymous survey with Hamilton-area participants to help fill the gap, but it will be voluntary and the results will not be comprehensive.

Solid public policy demands solid research. Yet this government has shown over and over that it is more interested in ideology than actual ideas, more concerned with rhetoric than reality.

Witness the recent health care overhaul that is currently gobbling headline inches in Ontario. The promise of the biggest reform since the advent of medicare is that it will improve patient care and possibly save money. And yet the BI pilot had the potential to improve the lives of the sickest among us, saving health care dollars in the process, and it was unceremoniously dropped. 

At Community Food Centres across Canada we know well that the poor are among the least healthy and most food insecure in our society. A broad range of factors—including education, childhood experience, biology, gender, and race—contribute to such health inequality. But it is well-established that one of the biggest influences on a person’s health and well-being is income

People living in poverty are more than twice as likely as the wealthy to report multiple chronic conditions. They are 2.5 times more likely to be hospitalized for conditions that can be treated in the community, and twice as likely to end up in the emergency department for mental health issues, including addiction.

Poverty costs those who experience it most dearly, but it also places a tremendous burden on our society and, especially, our health care system. It stands to reason that if we increase income, we will see better health outcomes upstream, and less cost to our collective purse.

Canada’s first basic income project, established by the provincial New Democratic government in the 1970s in Manitoba (the MINCOME project), found an 8.5 per cent reduction in hospitalizations and a decrease in reported mental health issues. That experiment was also halted when Conservatives came to power; a final report was never released. 

Already, Ontario’s BI participants have been telling journalists, researchers and community-based organizations like the Hamilton CFC that their health was improving, their visits to food banks decreasing, their hope for the future on the rise. If this government were making decisions based on evidence rather than ideology we would have had a chance to quantify the impact of this bold social experiment. 

The answer to improving the province’s health and saving tax dollars may very well have been right in front of our noses. Now we’ll never know. We all pay the price for such short-sightedness.

Photo by Jessie Golem,

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