Giving away free money a curiously tough job
Province struggling to find eligible participants for its basic income pilot project
Money for nothing?
Offering up to $1,400 a month with no strings attached to someone living in poverty may sound easy, says Kwame McKenzie, special adviser to Ontario’s basic income pilot project.
“But it’s not,” says the respected psychiatrist, researcher and international expert on the social causes of illness, suicide and health equity.
“We have spent a lot of time teaching people that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is,” McKenzie says. “You have to build techniques and strategies to reassure people that they aren’t going to be let down and it isn’t a scam.”
About 28,000 residents in the Hamilton-Brantford and Thunder Bay areas have received 40-page application packages in the mail since Premier Kathleen Wynne launched the three-year initiative in late April. Recruitment in Lindsay, the third trial site, begins later this fall.
The pilot is expected to cost $50 million a year and help the government determine whether a less intrusive and more trusting approach to delivering income support improves health, education and housing outcomes for low-income workers and people on welfare. The government also wants to see if providing an income floor below which nobody can fall improves job prospects for those living on low incomes.
But so far, the randomized weekly mailouts have resulted in relatively few applications and even fewer cheques in the hands of low-income Ontarians.
Based on feedback from public information meetings over the summer, many of the packages landed in the mailboxes of people who aren’t eligible, either because they are too old or earning too much money.
Up to 4,000 individuals ages 18 to 64 with after-tax incomes under about $34,000 (or under $48,000 for couples and under about $46,000 for a single person with a disability) will receive the provincial cash. Up to 4,000 others will get no extra money, but will be tracked as a control group.
“We have spent a lot of time teaching people that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
KWAME MCKENZIE SPECIAL ADVISER, BASIC INCOME PILOT PROJECT
People with disabilities will receive an additional $500 a month. And the basic income will be reduced by 50 cents for every dollar earned until a participant is no longer financially eligible. The government won’t say how many have signed up or how many cheques were issued in July and August. But community agencies partnering with the government to raise awareness and help potential participants apply, say few low-income people with application forms have come forward for assistance.
Mackenzie, who heads the Wellesley Institute health think-tank and is director of clinical health equity at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, says this isn’t unusual and that studies of this kind use randomized mail-outs as much for advertising as recruitment.
It helps to get the word out, so when people are tapped in more targeted enrolment efforts, they know something about it, he says.
“If you want to reach more marginalized populations you need a number of different ways of getting people talking about it,” he says.
Last month, provincial officials began setting up open and targeted enrolment sessions in food banks and community agencies in Thunder Bay and Brantford. Lakehead Social Planning Council in Thunder Bay is also reaching out to potential participants over Facebook. Open enrolment sessions will start in Hamilton next week. The weekly mail-outs have changed to a “less intimidating” onepage letter inviting people to request an application package or visit the government’s basic income website for more information, said Karen Glass, the government’s senior bureaucrat on the file. Reminder postcards are being sent to those who received the initial package. And now, anyone living in the household, including an adult son or daughter — not just the person named on the envelope — will be eligible to apply.
“What we learn from this pilot will help inform our longer-term plans for income security reform,” said Social Services Minister Helena Jaczek and Housing Minister Peter Milczyn, who are jointly leading the project.
Trevor Beecraft, executive director of the Welcome Inn Community Centre, Brantford’s only emergency homeless shelter, hopes the pilot project’s targeted enrolment efforts reach his clients.
“The people we serve have no addresses so those who could potentially benefit the most from the basic income have had no access to the application form,” Beecraft said. The centre’s 36-bed shelter in a local church provided 8,000 sleeps last year and has served 232 individual users so far this year.
“It’s going to be a skewed result if they don’t have the homeless involved in the demographics of their study,” he said.
In addition to having no address, many homeless people lack government-issued identification and most probably haven’t filed their 2016 tax- es and won’t have a T1 tax return document needed to verify their income.
“The other barrier for the demographic I work with is literacy . . . There are a lot of barriers for those who could use this the most.”
Beecraft says the study needs to learn what support homeless people would need if they suddenly saw their incomes jump.
This comes from a greater concern among anti-poverty advocates that if the basic income proves successful for higher functioning people on low-incomes and eventually replaces welfare, services for the most vulnerable would be cut to pay for the change.
“Just because you give them more money doesn’t take away the challenges of mental health or addictions that many of them face,” Beecraft says. “But it would make it much easier for organizations like ours to find them suitable housing that meets their needs.”
Convincing them to apply for the pilot project, however, is another matter, he noted.
Some are afraid to try it because there is no guarantee they will be chosen to get the extra money. Others can’t imagine moving into more secure housing and beginning to live a better life, only to see it taken away when the project ends in three years.
“Everything they would have built up through the pilot would be lost. People with foresight are saying they don’t want to be in that situation, even if they would be better off in the short term,” Beecraft says.
And for others it’s just paranoia. “It is hard for them to trust.”
Thunder Bay resident Taras Harapyuk, who hasn’t worked since 2015 when he fell while lifting a ladder off his truck, received an application package in July and completed it about three weeks ago.
The 57-year-old former heating and fireplace installer, who has been living on about $700 a month in welfare payments, is “praying” he will be among 4,000 chosen to receive the cash.
“I was very happy to get (the application) because I really need temporary help,” he said by phone from his modest bungalow where he has lost heat, hydro and even water due to mounting bills he can no longer pay.
Avisiting nurse, who has been helping Harapyuk with pain management after back and shoulder surgery related to his injury, assisted with the application.
“I know how to save. I know how to make money last. It would help me get back on my feet,” he said Friday after a physiotherapy appointment. “I am strong. I never give up. But I just need a little bit of help.”
Dr. Kwame McKenzie is the new CEO of the progressive think-tank focused on health equity.