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Association of Ontario Health Centres
Association des centres de sante de l’Ontario

Ontario's voice for community-governed primary health care.

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Basic Income Guarantee: Can it be a sustainable solution to poverty? Stay tuned as Ontario's pilot rolls out

Will the numbers from Ontario's Basic Income pilot add up to people being able to lift themselves out of poverty? 

By Erin Walters, Health Promoter and Educator at Quest CHC, St. Catharines

Across Ontario’s political spectrum, support is growing for a Basic Income Guarantee. The idea isn’t a new one: “Mincome” has roots in the policies of the Manitoba NDP in the 1970s. Now, the concept has backing from a former Canadian senator, a former Canadian bank CEO, the World Economic Forum, and now the Ontario government, which is launching a pilot project in three communities across the province.

The reasons for the growing support are many.

For each of the current provincial and federal income support programs available to Ontarians, conditions are attached, which means that many people fall through the cracks. For those who do qualify for social assistance, the amount of financial support provided makes it hard to live a dignified life. As one of many Health Promoters working in Community Health Centres across Ontario, I witness first-hand the negative effects of these challenges on people’s overall health and wellbeing.

An Ontario Works recipient receives $706 per month, which often isn’t nearly enough to cover basic needs such as housing, food, clothing, medications, and transportation. People are forced to make choices about whether to pay the electricity bill or buy a bus pass, or to buy nutritious food or allow their child to attend a class fieldtrip. These are heartbreaking decisions that limit a person’s ability to fully participate in life, and ultimately harm their chances of leaving poverty – and its ill effects on health -- behind.

With a volatile labour market that has seen a rise in precarious employment and job losses due to automation, more people than ever are struggling to attain income security. That’s why now is the time for changes to Ontario’s social assistance system. Can a Basic Income Guarantee be part of the solution?

Basic Income Pilot

Radically re-thinking the way in which social assistance is delivered to the people who need it could be an effective way not only to address shortcomings of the current system, but also might be a way to reduce stigma related to income assistance, encouraging more participation in the labour market and community life overall.

That brings us to Ontario’s Basic Income pilot project.

The pilot project will replace the current Ontario Works (OW) program and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) with one that: provides an adequate amount of income every month to ensure all basic needs are covered; requires less monitoring as money is provided without conditions; and distributes income support automatically without a difficult application process. This income support, which is delivered through a negative income tax model, would be available to individuals whose income falls below a certain threshold, whether or not they are currently receiving OW or ODSP.

On April 24, the provincial government released additional information regarding the design of the pilot project based on feedback from 35,000 people. The pilot will randomly invite individuals 18-64 years of age living on a low income from Hamilton, Brantford, Brant County; Thunder Bay and the surrounding area; and Lindsay to participate in the pilot.

Participants will receive up to $16,989 per year for a single person, or $24,027 per year for a couple. People with a disability will receive an additional $6,000 per year. Importantly, people on social assistance who are chosen to participate won’t lose their drug and dental benefits.

Policy Discussions and Concerns

Policy circles have been abuzz since the pilot was first announced in 2016. Countless social policy think tanks, including the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Mowat Centre, and Maytree released reports discussing important considerations about the implementation of a Basic Income program. Other organizations, including AOHC, have released official statements on the topic (AOHC’s official statement can be found here in English or French.) And while it remains clear there is broad support for the idea, there are reservations about potential design elements and concerns that the pilot project may postpone other necessary poverty reduction actions, such as raising social assistance rates, increasing the minimum wage, and investing in new affordable housing. Another key question will be whether $16,989 - 75 percent of the Low Income Measure (LIM) - will be enough for individuals to lift themselves above the poverty line.

For now, proponents of poverty reduction and health equity must await the Ontario pilot project’s full launch this spring and be prepared to monitor its roll out and progress carefully. Since there are AOHC member centres in Thunder Bay, Hamilton/Brantford and Lindsay, it’s our hope that we’ll get to see what the benefits can be for a person when a Basic Income Guarantee is combined with the kind of wraparound, interprofessional, team-based services and programs that my colleagues and I deliver across the province every day. While those of us who work on the frontlines of community-governed primary health care know the significance of income as a determinant of health, we also know that the intersection of income and other social determinants – such as education, race, gender and sexual orientation, housing or social support – can have profound impacts that go well beyond what a boost to income alone can address.

As a Health Promoter, I’m optimistic and I look forward to the coming years because I see a Basic Income Guarantee as an incredible opportunity to go from the constant uphill battle of trying to help people beat the odds to attain the best possible health and wellbeing, to permanently changing the odds for all people affected by poverty.