The three-year basic income pilot project currently underway in three Ontario centres (Hamilton/Brantford/Brant County, Lindsay and the Thunder Bay area) will, in the long run, arguably constitute the most important element in the Liberal government’s agenda to secure a fairer economy for Ontarians. “Basic Income” is this context is essentially a guaranteed minimum income delivered through the tax system rather than via a grab bag of highly bureaucratic and often intrusive government programs.
In place of existing ODSP, Ontario Works or other benefits, single pilot recipients (working-age Ontarians between 18 and 64) will receive up to $16,989 annually (70% of the 2016 Low-income Measure), couples will receive $24,026, and those with a disability will receive $6,000 over and above their annual current ODSP allowance. Those amounts will be reduced by 50% of any earned income.
The pilot will conclude with an in-depth evaluation of the outcomes, including comparisons to comparable individuals not receiving those benefits. Outcomes include such factors as health, housing, food, and work behaviour. While similar pilots are underway and have taken place in other countries, this is the most comprehensive to date. Hence it is gathering worldwide attention. Preliminary findings from other pilots suggest improved health outcomes, better education, reduced stress and, contrary to the fears often expressed by conservatives, no reduction in the incentive to work. In fact, the security of a guaranteed basic income appears to encourage entrepreneurial ventures and retraining by largely eliminating fear of homelessness and being unable to put food on the table. Broadly implemented, it would arguably discourage abusive workplaces by giving abused employees freedom to walk away. In most cases, however, people tend to value their jobs and advance in their existing workplaces.
Completing the pilot will provide the information needed to quantify the costs and savings of a province-wide rollout. Whatever that number turns out to be, some will argue that it would be too expensive and others will consider that essentially eliminating poverty and promoting a workforce which is better skilled, more flexible and better prepared for an increasingly automated economy constitutes an investment which Ontario can’t afford not to make. It is therefore worth remembering the fate of Canada’s previous major basic income pilot, a federal/provincial initiative centred in Dauphin, Manitoba, which ran from 1974 to 1979. Unfortunately, conservative governments took power provincially in 1977 and federally in 1979, which resulted in the pilot being terminated without any analysis of the very valuable data which had been collected. It would be tragic were history to repeat itself.