A basic income guarantee has been back in the news a lot lately, thanks to Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and other tech giants who have been publicly endorsing 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 B.C. just set aside $4 million to investigate the feasibility of a basic income for the province in their recent budget — with other Canadian provinces and other countries observing these measures closely. The 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 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 populations out of poverty.
But it has its critics, too. The idea of a guaranteed income is garnering mixed reviews, with some pundits hailing it as a solution for poverty, while others speculate that the hefty cost alone may increase taxes for everyone, including basic-income recipients.
Yet, 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, to be a determinant of poor mental health of Canadians. With as many as 4.8 million people living below the low-income measure in Canada, there are 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 and housing. As the quality of life erodes, the resulting stress often leads to mental-health issues, such as depression and anxiety. An example of this can be seen through a recent Ontario study, which 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 day-to-day stress. It may also pay dividends for decreased use of the health system as a result.
Canada implemented a basic-income program in the 1970s, targeting Winnipeg and the town of Dauphin. Mincome, as it was called, 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 disincentivize recipients to work.
Decades after the project was shelved, research on its impact concluded that Mincome did not disincentivize recipients to work. Two main groups, however, had increased unemployment rates during this time: school-aged males and new mothers. But it’s a good-news story there, too. 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 to have been fewer hospitalizations due to accidents, injuries and mental-health issues during this period. Recipients flourished under the experimental pilot, with noticeable social and health benefits.
Forty years later, the modern-day workforce is dramatically changing: millennials are working precarious jobs without benefits, while technology is displacing older, experienced workers out of their jobs and making it harder for them to compete for new jobs.
With a guaranteed annual income, recipients will have the flexibility, confidence and dignity to spend their money on their immediate needs at their discretion. Whether it be spent on job training and licences, nutritious food for their families, quality child care or transit, individuals will spend their time and money on immediate need, usually within the local economy.
Ontario and Quebec’s steps toward a basic income are a great start, but the idea has enough merit that it needs to be discussed across the country, involving policy-makers from all sectors and levels of government.
Vinusha Gunaseelan is a second-year health services research MSc student at the University of Toronto. She is a student contributor to EvidenceNetwork.ca.