Turning away from a valuable social experiment

The abrupt cancellation of Ontario's basic income project has broad impact on international research, as well as devastating participants

I recently participated in a panel in Finland with representatives of basic income experiments from Finland, the Netherlands, India and Scotland. My report on the cancellation of Ontario’s Basic Income Pilot project was received with stunned disbelief.

On July 31, three months after enrolment was complete and before the first annual follow-up survey could be conducted, the planned three-year experiment in Ontario was cancelled.

Nearly a month after the announcement, participants in the experiment still had not been contacted and informed what would happen to them.

Afterwards, panel participants contacted their counterparts involved in experiments in the U.S., Barcelona, Kenya and elsewhere and composed an open letter that they asked me to deliver to Premier Doug Ford and Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod. They conveyed two concerns:

First, they worried about the 6,000 Ontario participants, 4,000 of whom had been promised a basic income for three years, who had been left dangling by the premature cancellation. At the time of cancellation, some participants had been receiving payments for almost a year, while others had participated for only three months. What would happen to the people who trusted their government and signed contracts in good faith – people who now find themselves unable to pay for apartment leases, bank loans or tuition payments?

On Aug. 31, a full month after the cancellation, MacLeod announced that participants would receive payments until March 2019 “so that they can adjust.” While it may be easy for governments and businesses to back out of signed contracts, ordinary people may find themselves teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, dealing with collection agencies and trying to ensure they have a place to live when their current landlord loses patience.

While a basic income was intended to allow people to make longer term decisions that might help them escape poverty, the cancellation of the experiment thrust them right back into the short-term survival decision-making that is a hallmark of poverty.

Sarath Davala, one of the researchers representing an experiment in Madhya Pradesh, India, mentioned his surprise that a Canadian project could pay so little attention to research ethics, while Canadian representatives of IDRC – Canada’s International Development Research Centre – spend so much time and money running ethics workshops for researchers in low-income countries.

The second concern of panel participants is the role that Ontario’s experiment played internationally. No single research experiment is ever perfect; each has strengths and weaknesses derived from the contexts within which they’re developed. The current round of basic income experiments was unique because the strengths of one project could counterbalance the weaknesses of another. Together, the data generated by these very different experiments could provide evidence for policy development worldwide.

A strong point of Finland’s project is that a nationally representative sample could be selected from their data registers because informed consent was not required of participants. If selected, Finns had no choice but to participate.

By contrast, Canada required informed consent, which raises a challenge for researchers who must then ensure that those who participate are representative of the broader population.

However, Finland’s project focused only on the long-term unemployed, while Ontario’s project was designed to allow us to see how people who are working would react to a basic income.

Finland and two sites in Ontario used a randomized controlled trial design, which is very good for certain kinds of analysis but doesn’t allow researchers to investigate how a society changes when a basic income is introduced. India and Kenya, by contrast, offered basic income to entire villages and the Lindsay site in Ontario was similarly designed to capture these broader effects.

Together, these experiments in high-, middle- and low-income countries captured the attention of policy-makers worldwide. Experiments used different designs and offered different payment structures, which would generate a breadth of data for policy development.

Then Ontario cancelled its project.

Policy should be based on a variety of factors, including compassion and justice, but surely evidence has a fundamental role to play. The Ontario cancellation can’t be reversed, but perhaps we can learn from this debacle and hold our governments accountable. Policy should not be the result of intuition and instinct, but informed by sound evidence.

We might also ask whether a seven-month reprieve for the people who opened their lives to researchers is sufficient salve for our consciences.

Evelyn L Forget is the author of Basic Income For Canadians: the Path to a Healthier, Wealthier Society for All, which will be available from James Lorimer and Co., Oct. 30. She is a health economist at the University of Manitoba and a contributor with EvidenceNetwork.ca, which is based at the University of Winnipeg. 


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