A basic income guarantee has been back in the news a lot lately, thanks to Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson, Elon Musk and other tech giants who have publicly endorsed the concept.
But it’s not just talk in Canada.
Ontario is piloting a basic income across three cities, Quebec has brought in a basic income for those who have a limited capacity to work, and the B.C. government just set aside $4 million to investigate the feasibility of a basic income in its recent budget. Other Canadian provinces and countries are observing these measures closely.
Canada’s Senate also passed a motion with cross-partisan support to have the federal government consider a national basic income pilot project.
The idea has legs across the political spectrum. Why is it resonating so widely?
A basic income can take different forms, including a universal basic income (the form proposed by many tech billionaires) or a negative income tax (as in Ontario and Quebec), for example. But the general concept is to provide citizens living below the poverty line with unconditional cash payments to help make ends meet regardless of their employment. The objective is to give everyone enough to meet the basic needs of life and raise them out of poverty.
But research demonstrates a basic income may improve the quality of life and health, specifically the mental well-being, of recipients. Research shows poverty, along with the material and social deprivation it brings, is a determinant of poor mental health of Canadians. As 4.8 million people live below the low-income measure in Canada – that’s a lot of people who could be directly aided by a guaranteed basic income.
Poverty is a result of insecure employment or unemployment, depriving individuals of sufficient incomes for basic needs such as food, housing and transit. As the quality of life erodes, the stress often leads to mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. A recent Ontario study found food insecurity to be a predictor of higher mental health-care utilization for working-age adults.
Having a basic income would give individuals access to basic necessities, preventing chronic stress. It may also result in decreased use of the health system.
Canada had a basic income program in the 1970s, targeting Winnipeg and the small town of Dauphin, Man. Mincome was a guaranteed annual income experiment funded by the federal and provincial governments. For three years, the project provided an annual guaranteed income to families living below the poverty line to assess whether it would discourage recipients from working.
Decades after the project was shelved, research on its impact concluded that Mincome did not discourage work. Two main groups, however, had increased unemployment rates during this time: school-aged males and new mothers. But high school graduation rates increased with this group of males not needing to work to support their families and new mothers were given the chance to stay home with their children without the pressure of having insufficient income to survive.
Most interestingly, Dr. Evelyn Forget’s research on Mincome shows there were fewer hospitalizations due to accidents, injuries and mental health issues during this period. Recipients flourished under the pilot, with noticeable social and health benefits.
Forty years later, the workforce is dramatically changing: millennials work precarious jobs without benefits and technology is displacing older, experienced workers and making it harder for them to compete.
Additionally, in order to access most provincial welfare systems, applicants must consistently prove their need and are expected to follow strict eligibility conditions once they receive funds – a process that’s both paternalistic and undignified. This level of mistrust is itself a stressor. Recipients of Ontario Works, for example, describe feeling degraded by the type of treatment they receive, which lowers their self-esteem and causes worsening mental health conditions, such as depression.
With a guaranteed annual income, recipients will face less stress not having to follow strict eligibility conditions. And they will have the flexibility, confidence and dignity to spend their money at their discretion on their immediate needs.
The impact of basic income is clear: individuals will be able to care for themselves and their families, regardless of employment status.
Ontario and Quebec’s concrete steps toward basic income are a great start, but the idea needs to be discussed clear across the country, involving policy-makers from all sectors and all levels of government.
Basic income would help make Canada a healthier and more equitable place for families to grow and flourish. It’s time we had a national dialogue on the case for basic income.
Vinusha Gunaseelan is a Health Services Research MSc student studying at the University of Toronto.