When discussing basic income it is easy to get lost in ideological and political discussion, or economics on a macro scale, forgetting the most important factor: people’s daily lives. Here we have an exclusive, honest and detailed account from someone who has participated in a basic income pilot, and the ways in which it impacted his life.
I enrolled in the Ontario Basic Income Pilot in April of 2018, as the enrolment process was nearing its end. I had previously been receiving disability supports while working and my enrolment in the pilot came following the loss of my job, which had caused me great emotional and mental turmoil. The sense of loss following 8 months of dedicated work, combined with losing the ability to cover my half of the household’s utilities and rent expenses I share with my mother, resulted in a marked hit to my self-esteem, great shame and a severe relapse of my previously controlled depression and anxiety disorder symptoms.
These mental health difficulties came about as the result of years of bullying and abuse in my formative elementary school years, and were further exacerbated by several cases of mistreatment from other successive employers following graduation from high school. I had spent prior years working to improve my mental and physical health through various self-improvements which included the loss of 60 lbs (approx 4.3 stone) of excess weight over 9 months, as well as weaning off of my antidepressant medication which was providing less than desirable side effects. I was able to return to a ‘normal’ state of mind, only to have the stability I had worked so hard for shattered and my earned quality of life taken away.
Thanks to the mutually beneficial living arrangements and support I have with my mother, neither of us would starve or become homeless, but I now lacked the ability to meaningfully contribute to the household as I had done before. While working I earned approximately $1700 per month, plus a reduced $230 disability payment, totalling approximately $1900. $800 of this amount was provided to cover my half of all the living expenses, utilities and rent for the household, while providing an extra bit of support to my mother so that she could have savings of her own. My disability support payments would continue after the job loss, but for me, a disability support payment with no deductions from earned income amounted to only $861 per month.
Ontario’s model explained
The Ontario Basic Income Pilot was initiated by the previous provincial government on the advice of the Honorable Hugh Segal, who provided the government with a discussion paper, from which they laid out the pilot’s guidelines. Participants were enrolled in the cities/communities of Lindsay, Hamilton, Thunder Bay, Brantford, Brant County and other minor surrounding areas. These locations were chosen to aptly test the impact of a basic income under various scenarios. Small and medium sized communities, a large urban setting, rural areas and areas predisposed to high levels of unemployment, crime and substance abuse and/or addiction were chosen for this purpose. Participation eligibility criteria required a recipient’s income as less than $34,000 per year for individuals, or up to $48,000 jointly per year for couples.
A sample of 4000 people received monthly basic income payments totalling $1415.75 for individuals, $1915.75 for persons with disabilities and $2002.25 for couples. A further 2000 people were enrolled as part of a “comparison group.” These participants did not receive the basic income. Both groups would answer surveys asking them about their living standard, health outcomes, education, training and stress, among other measures. The amount allocated comprised 75% of the Low Income Measure (LIM) so as to encourage work. Any earned income would reduce the payments allocated by 50 cents per dollar earned. Participants who were receiving social assistance payments from any of the existing income support programs were required to withdraw, but would be eligible for rapid reinstatement at the conclusion of the pilot in the event they still needed social assistance.
The model was designed in a way which provided targeted assistance to the poorest people while still encouraging workplace participation, with the goal of lifting the participant out of poverty. Though it was means-tested it provided a significantly larger amount of financial security for its participants, with much less bureaucratic oversight than the province’s current social supports system. It was argued that if a hypothetical basic income were implemented in a way which was focused on only those who lacked the basic means to survive, it would be more cost effective and actionable in practice, while still addressing the needs of its intended target population.
The first payments
I first received notification that I had been accepted to receive payments on the evening of May 11th. I was to be provided with a monthly basic income of $1915.75 per month. My immediate reaction to this information is difficult to describe. I felt a combination of unease about receiving such a substantial amount of social assistance compared with what I was used to, and relief from knowing that my purchasing power and financial security would now be significantly better than if I had my $861 disability payments to rely on as income alone.
This basic income allowed for a continuation of living standard despite severe impact to my mental stability, and a restoration in self-esteem that came from being able to continue providing my mother with the same assistance as before. Prior to enrolling I had been indecisive about whether I supported such a scheme, but over time I gradually managed to reduce the stigma surrounding it in my mind by focusing on pursuing something which would generate future value: I felt an immediate need to do something productive with the funds, or I would never have been able to forgive myself.
I decided to save any unallocated funds available after living expenses and other obligations were covered towards education. I now had a steady source of reliable and decent income with which I could cover school costs. I applied to University and was accepted to start studies this September. The greatest benefit of the basic income in this scenario was that my ability to pay for things like books, administrative fees or other expenses did not depend on settling for employment which provided no relevant workplace experience in my field. I was free to seek out more readily available volunteer/internship opportunities related to my chosen field of study, without losing the ability to cover unforeseen expenses.
A further benefit is that my attention could be focused on my studies, as opposed to being divided between studying and the need for a source of income. Such a benefit is particularly useful in compensation for the adverse cognitive impacts of my depression. My plan is to pursue an Honours B.A degree in Community Health & Human Rights with the goal of pursuing a career in healthcare or in the public service. Basic income provided me with a restoration of dignity and sense of purpose in a time where suicide became a very real possibility. It created the conditions necessary for me to take on the greater responsibility I so deeply desired to fill the void in my life. It spurred me into pursuing something meaningful to justify the support I received. I am committed to completing my education so that even after the pilot’s premature cancellation, I may have something to show for it.
Although my participation was brief, my participation helped teach me the importance of understanding the circumstances faced by society’s most vulnerable before making judgments. I am now convinced that the single greatest challenge to the implementation of a basic income is not found in the workability of the policy, but in the attitudinal barriers and stigma that surrounds the concept of social assistance.
Here in Ontario we had a workable model which provided targeted relief to the poorest citizens. It was designed in a way which sought to realise potential rather than assuming a lack of it. It worked to address the root of poverty: lack of opportunity. It threw away negative assumptions about personal responsibility and gave recipients a chance to control their own lives in a meaningful way. How much potential do we lose because of these harmful assumptions? How many people yearn for the chance to be useful and bring their potential forward to the betterment of themselves and society?
All the questions we have about a basic income’s impact on health outcomes, education, labour force participation and potential savings to healthcare and social assistance expenditures cannot be answered if we are not willing to put the theory into practice. I firmly believe that our model put forward many actionable and noteworthy approaches to tackling the issue of feasibility with respect to the implementation of a basic income.
While there is no one size fits all solution, I believe many of these approaches could have broad applicability towards other pilot experiments. There are still opportunities in other jurisdictions around the world to test various models of how a basic income might function. Here, Scotland has a unique chance to pick up the torch and work to answer these questions. An opportunity that it should not squander.
We currently accept submissions for our blog, and are particularly interested in hearing how a basic income might benefit people’s lives here. Published anonymously, or fully credited, if you would like to contribute a case for CBI, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org