In the Hamilton and Thunder Bay areas of Ontario, 400 people have been signed up so far for a pilot project that provides a basic income.
It’s a three-year experiment that will be independently monitored by researchers and followed with keen interest by provincial governments and antipoverty advocates across the country.
The idea behind a basic income is that stable, livable funding makes it easier for people to escape poverty, find safe housing and employment or employment training, and maintain a balanced diet and good health, thus costing the social safety net less in the long run.
It’s not a new idea. The World Economic Forum reports that the concept of a universal basic income (UBI) has been turned into at least a temporary reality in several parts of the world, including Alaska, Namibia, Scotland, India and Brazil.
Currently, Finland, the Netherlands and parts of Ontario are testing the waters, while British Columbia - which has the highest poverty rate in Canada - plans to follow suit.
A 53-year-old man who lost his job because of health issues told the Toronto Star last month that a basic income could have prevented him from joining the ranks of the homeless.
The idea is that recipients receive a monthly income (the amount varies by program and jurisdiction) in addition to social assistance or - in the case of the working poor - the modest employment income they earn, to bridge the gap between vulnerability and security.
Ontario hopes to eventually have 4,000 people enrolled in the project.
Writing for the World Economic Forum in January, Scott Santens makes a strong argument in favour of UBI: “The truth is that the costs of people having insufficient incomes are many and collectively massive. It burdens the health-care system. It burdens the criminal justice system. It burdens the education system. It burdens would-be entrepreneurs, it burdens both productivity and consumer buying power and therefore entire economies.”
In this province, with high illiteracy and unemployment rates, we can relate.
Critics, however, argue that a basic income rewards people for nothing, is just another form of welfare, and could take away any incentive to find work.
And, furthermore, as Huffington Post contributor George Zarkadakis points out, “Democracy is based on the assumption that citizens are the producers of wealth and the owners of property. UBI is undermining the foundations of democracy because it transforms citizen freedom to citizen dependency.”
So, would a universal basic income help boost people living in poverty to a more stable life, enabling them to improve their circumstances? Or would it make people already reliant on the government even more reliant?
Given the current fiscal reality in Newfoundland and Labrador, UBI may not be an experiment the government can afford to carry out anytime soon. But the pilot projects being rolled out in other parts of Canada are certainly worth watching, and thinking about.