No Longer Living on the Edge: An Experiment in Guaranteed Income

For the first time in over a decade, Jessie can finally breathe a sigh of relief.

When she finishes her day at work, she doesn’t need to worry about rushing out the door to her second, or third, or even fourth part-time job.

There’s food in the fridge to eat, the bills have been paid on time and rent has been covered, so when the 29-year-old rests her head on the pillow at night, she can drift off to sleep without having to worry if she’ll have a roof over her head tomorrow, and she doesn’t toss and turn while ignoring the pangs of hunger.

Jessie, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her privacy, was in shock to learn she had been selected as a participant in the final wave of Ontario’s three-year basic income experiment, which provides participants living in poverty with a monthly, no-strings-attached payment of up to $1,400, and an additional $500 per month for those with disabilities. The program launched in 2017 in Hamilton, Thunder Bay and Lindsay.

Jessie has joined more than 4,000 people enrolled in the program. Participants live on less than $34,000 individually or $48,000 as a couple. The pilot project includes people who are working, going to school, or living on financial assistance.

The Ontario government recently announced it has successfully completed the enrolment phase of the pilot project aimed at providing a basic income to those living on low incomes and social assistance. Now complete, the project will start to examine how a basic income might help expand opportunities and job prospects while helping families afford basic needs such as housing and food.

“I was shocked at first and it took a couple of hours for the full reality to really sink in,” Jessie explains.

It wasn’t until she was driving home after work that her new reality finally did sink in.

“I kept thinking I don’t have to worry about paying my rent. That’s when I started crying ‘My rent is free; my rent is free.’ That was a huge relief.”

For three years, single participants will receive $16,989 annually and couples will receive $24,027. People making other income will see this amount reduced by 50 cents for every dollar earned. Participants with disabilities are eligible for another $6,000 per year.

A third-party research team will evaluate the effects on people’s physical and mental health, food security, stress and anxiety, housing stability, education and employment. Their responses will be compared against a control group — low-income participants who won’t receive the basic income but will fill out surveys about their life and well-being.

The data collected from the pilot program will guide future provincial policy on how to better support all Ontarians living in poverty.

Growing up, Jessie was born into a middle-class family where there was always food on the table and clean clothes to wear. She never wanted for anything.

But Jessie never imagined living in poverty would be her future as an adult.

She did what she was always told to do- go to university to get a great career and make enough money to support herself.

She took out a student loan to study counselling, but the field wasn’t a right fit for her. With no diploma and a huge student loan to pay off, Jessie says that was the nail in the coffin for her. She couldn’t find a job that covered her rent, put food on the table.

“I remember being told university was the way to go. Take the academic route and you’ll be the most successful. We are told to take out huge student loans, but we’re never taught how to manage money in high school.”

Jessie remembers learning about advanced trigonometry, but not about taxes and how to budget. It was a “huge learning curve” that cost her.

Jessie lives a frugal life, she shares an apartment with roommates, owns a second-hand car, and doesn’t have any non-essential items.

Thanks to the income supplement, Jessie says there is light at the end of the tunnel-finally.

“I am finally able to start paying off my student loans, and my credit card debt.”

By the time the program is finished, Jessie hopes to not even need it anymore. She plans put some money aside in a savings account, and without the need to juggle multiple part-time jobs to pay the bills, she intends on to start her own business.

Through the pilot program, Jessie hopes Canadians learn a valuable lesson-that poverty has many faces.

“I live in poverty but my life doesn’t exactly look like it,” she explains.

“I have a car. But I have also been floating in overdraft for many months, pushing off my bills, and looked at my empty fridge many times. That’s my own personal experience.”

There’s this stereotype that people living in poverty are lazy, and if they would just pull themselves up by their bootstraps, that things would change for them. When people learned Jessie was receiving the benefit, people called her a parasite.

But she hopes people will view this program as giving people a way to help themselves instead of a handout.

“I think when we as a society help each other out, everyone benefits,” she says.

Jessie’s story, sadly, isn’t one that’s unusual across the country. She is one of nearly five million people in Canada currently living in poverty, and the numbers in Canada are staggering.

Canada Without Poverty, a non-for-profit dedicated to the eradication of poverty in the country, reports that one in seven people in Canada lives his or her life in poverty.

Living in poverty is expensive for the country, and the reality is it costs Canada anywhere from $72 billion and $84 billion.

In the Niagara region, the consequences of poverty cost the region a harrowing $1.38 billion per year, according to stats from the Niagara Poverty Reduction Network (NPRN).

Erin Walters, a member of the NPRN, says providing a monthly basic income grant, with no conditions to work, could help people living in poverty.

The reality for many people living from pay cheque to pay cheque is a lack of choices because of limited funds. They must choose between paying the hydro bill to keep the lights on, putting food on the table or paying the rent to keep a roof over their heads.

A basic income is a key to creating a Niagara that offers security and dignity for all its citizens while ensuring a fair distribution of work, income, and participation in society.

“It means people are not able to live and thrive fully if they are making challenging decisions they shouldn’t have to make,” Walters says.

From an economic standpoint, the argument that a basic income guarantee is too hefty of a price tag to pay is moot, because Canadians are already paying for it—Just in different ways, Walter says.

A 2012 report conducted by Brock University’s Niagara Community Observatory, in partnership with the Niagara Workforce Planning Board and the Niagara Research and Planning Council, put the cost of poverty in Niagara at $1.38 billion a year.

That number comes from a variety of costs including health care, crime, housing and homelessness, unemployment insurance and other social factors.

“With a basic income, what you’re doing is investing money to address these downstream costs, and end up saving money by preventing poor outcomes for people. If we invest in these people, we save money down the road,” Walters explains.

On a yearly basis, Walters says roughly 38 million people in Ontario access emergency rooms, or their physicians because of tooth pain or other dental issues. In these situations, patients don’t have their problems addressed, rather they are given antibiotics to manage the pain—and not dealing with the root cause.

“Often the issue gets brushed aside because people don’t have the funds to go to a dental office, or they don’t have employer-provided benefits. The cost would have to be taken out of food or rent,” Walter says.

“If people have enough money, it can have enough downstream effects.”

Walters encourages people to put themselves in the shoes of someone living in poverty and think what it would be like to live on a limited income.

“There are different myths out there and one is that people in poverty are just sitting around and lazy. Living in poverty is a job. It’s not a glamorous lifestyle and people wouldn’t be doing it if they had a choice.”

Poverty has many faces, and it can strike at any moment. There’s no certainty that poverty won’t affect anyone at some point in their lives. All it takes is an injury or a job loss.

“Some people think poverty is a character flaw but it’s not. It’s a flaw in society. It has nothing to do with the person itself,” Walter says.

Times has changed, and with automation pushing more and more people out of work, Walter says Canada will see many full-time jobs lost over the next couple of years. Precarious minimum wage jobs will become more commonplace. Now is the time for a fundamental shift in thinking.

The NPRN released its calculations for the cost of living in Niagara for 2017, and for a family of four consisting of two adults and two young children-the cost is $71,294. That’s the minimum to survive in the region, and only covers basic needs such as shelter, food, transportation, childcare, and allows them to participate in the economic and social fabric of the community through a monthly outing or recreational membership.

It doesn’t consider goals like saving for children’s college or university education, debt repayment, home ownership, or saving for retirement.

Walters says the Basic Income pilot project “is fantastic.” She hopes the information from the pilot project will sway politicians in the direction of change when it comes to providing a basic income to Canadians. The idea was tested in Manitoba in the 1970s and data was collected but nothing ever happened with it.

“All of that information was buried for decades and decades. We know (a basic income guarantee) works, and it’s frustrating we have to do a pilot project to prove it works.”

“You can see newspaper articles on a weekly basis how it’s impacting them. The long-term effects, housing stability, might not change instantaneously. But, over time it makes a huge difference.”

If politicians agree to support a basic income guarantee, Walters believes a program won’t roll out anytime soon, rather it is years in the making.

Regardless, Walter says a new system that’s innovative and creative needs to be put in place to help Canadians living in poverty.

“Basic income is a fantastic way to help everybody. Assisting everybody that needs that help regardless of where their income is coming from, we’re creating a better social network. This will stand as a foundation for a lot of people and people a chance to switch from surviving to thriving.”

The Truth About Poverty

4 million Canadians experience food insecurity and 1 in 8 Canadian households struggle to put food on the table.

1.3 million children in Canada live in conditions of poverty. That’s 1 in 4 children.

1 in 10 Canadians can’t afford to fill their medical prescriptions.

About 235,000 people in Canada experienced homelessness in 2016, with roughly 35,000 people being homeless on any given night.
— Stats reported by Canada Without Poverty