Poverty to hope and back again: Study reveals why basic income held such promise

By Roderick Benns

Many participants were at extreme risk of homelessness before they enrolled in the Ontario pilot.

Study results from the Ontario Basic Income Pilot’s baseline survey have now been released, revealing the stories of participants who were hoping to break the cycle of poverty, find better jobs and opportunities, stabilize their housing, and improve their health and well-being.

The baseline survey was conducted by an arms-length, independent evaluation team led by St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. Under the initial agreement signed by enrollees, the descriptive statistics were to be made available to pilot participants who requested the survey results (no personal information was included).

When entering the basic income pilot, a large majority (81 per cent of participants) were in moderate or severe psychological distress. Inadequate access to health care was also identified by many: 40 per cent had unmet health care needs (most often because of costs, such as for medication) and less than half of participants had visited a dentist in the year prior to joining the basic income pilot. Chronic pain, mental health illness and mobility challenges were some of the disabilities basic income enrollees listed.

Six months ago, the provincial government broke an election promise and announced the cancellation of the pilot. The research project was set up in Lindsay, Thunder Bay area, and Hamilton and Brantford area. Participants will now have their incomes stripped away two years early.

“This survey paints a detailed picture of poverty in Ontario and reveals the hopes of a courageous group of people who sought to improve their lives by enrolling in the basic income pilot project,” says Tom Cooper, director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction.

About 6,500 people involved in the Basic Income pilot completed the survey: this included approximately 4,500 people who were receiving basic incomes along with a further 2,000 participants in the control (or comparison) group who were initially recruited to complete surveys and did not receive a basic income.

Thirty-five percent of Ontario Basic Income pilot enrollees were working but not earning enough at their jobs to escape working poverty. For these individuals, basic income was a supplement to low-wage work. Participants who worked were only able to secure 26 hours a week on average. A significant portion of this group – 13 per cent — worked two or more jobs.

Many participants were at extreme risk of homelessness before they enrolled in the Ontario pilot. Eight per cent of participants had experienced homelessness in the year before enrolling (spending on average four months without a home of their own – many living in shelters). The majority of basic income participants were spending upwards of 50 per cent or more of their monthly incomes towards keeping their housing.

In the baseline survey, 95 per cent of participants identified they were either sometimes or often struggling financially or falling further behind. Half were late in paying bills and 20 per cent were behind in rent or mortgage payments, further placing their housing at risk.

Before beginning the basic income pilot, 80 per cent of participants were ‘food insecure’, with 50 per cent experiencing severe food insecurity as a reality in their lives. Inadequate food is a precursor to poor health.

All of this baseline survey evidence points to a poor decision made on the part of the government to cancel this, say basic income advocates.

“Without evidence, the government cancelled this project; fortunately, basic income participants are sharing stories about how a basic income has truly transformed their lives and could do the same for Canadians across the country,” says Sheila Regehr, chair of Basic Income Canada.

The Basic Income Canada Network has conducted its own survey of basic income participants in Hamilton, Lindsay and Thunder Bay and has been releasing that information in installments. The Lindsay Advocate has been serving as BICN’s media partner to release this survey data.

Basic income advocacy groups across Ontario have been joined by the mayors of the pilot communities, international researchers, the Chambers of Commerce of Hamilton, Thunder Bay, Lindsay, 900 medical professionals and one-hundred CEOs of Canadian companies and called on both the provincial and federal government to work together to continue the pilot for the remaining two years of the research project.


  1. linero says:

    The title of the article implied that there would be evidence in the article that this program worked – and by worked, I mean that these people got on their feet and were able to cope psychologically and financially. There is nothing in the article as to results except to say that surveys were taken from participants and that politicians wanted it to continue. Actually there were CEOs that were in favor of continuing the program – they certainly have the means to create their own program and not tax the public to support this one. While there is a statement (The Basic Income Canada Network has conducted its own survey of basic income participants in Hamilton, Lindsay and Thunder Bay and has been releasing that information in installments) – where is the link and what were the findings. All in all this is not a helpful, nor seemingly accurate article.

    How exactly is poverty defined? Many people live adequately with very little money – others incur debt because of poor impulse control? Are money-management skills included in this support from the program? What about birth control? Is there some kind of family-planning information offered? Job skill training? What about forming communities of social/psychological support? While there is something to be said in feeling supported financially by the government – what happens when that ends?

    There is so much more to getting out of poverty than handing someone money which only trains them to seek that. Give a man/woman a fish and they eat for a day (or 2 years) – teach a woman/man to fish and they eat for life. Give them a support group and they can handle life so much better. Reference the Grameen Bank micro-loans for women to see how support and demand for responsible action work.

  2. stan says:

    Who pays for the Basic Income program?. Already hardworking , overburdened tax Ontario taxpayers?.

  3. Suzanne says:

    Great article. The true strength and success of a country is rightly measured by how its most vulnerable are treated. Sad that we have starving children in our own community.

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