On how Ontario trialed basic income


The following article is authored by Mohammad Ferdosi, Tom McDowell, Wayne Lewchuk and Stephanie Ross.



Canada’s most recent basic income pilot was conducted in the province of Ontario between 2017 and 2019. It was designed as an alternative to the province’s traditional social assistance system, which is characterized by high conditionality and limited benefits. The pilot targeted people between the ages of 18 and 64 earning less than $34,000 CAD as individuals or $48,000 as couples. Benefits were reduced by 50 cents for every dollar earned through employment.
The basic income represented a substantial increase over the benefits of traditional social assistance, which ranged from $721 to $1151 a month. During the pilot, individuals received up to $1415 per month and those with health conditions received up to $1915.
All 4,000 enrolled recipients were to receive three years’ worth of basic income payments. An evaluation team was commissioned to assess work-life outcomes, with pilot participants serving as key informants. However, with a change in government, the pilot was cancelled after only 18 months. The work of the evaluation team was disbanded before data collection and analysis.
The pilot discontinuation led to strong community efforts to gather data independently. For example, our team of researchers conducted a study at the Hamilton pilot site, where basic income payments had been delivered to approximately 1,000 recipients. Through surveys and interviews, we generated an incomplete yet informative overview of the impact of basic income on the living and working conditions of nearly a quarter of those recipients.
Our study revealed positive impacts in physical health, mental health, and well-being for both participants and others in their households. More precisely, of the total respondents, 74% reported more participation in physical activity, 83% reported better mental health and 79% reported better well-being. In addition, 71% reported feeling less tired and 57% reported less physical pain. Recipients adopted healthier life choices, including less use of tobacco (56%) and alcohol (48%). They were less stressed (86%), less likely to be depressed (83%), and had a more positive outlook on life (86%). This contributed to fewer demands on the public health system.
Overall, our findings suggest that well-being improved for those on basic income across a variety of metrics. People ate better (86%) and went without food less often (69%). They reported better living accommodations (46%) and were more able to afford essential household items (85%) and clothing (86%). Their financial situation improved, including greater ease in repaying debts (60%), better emergency financial preparedness (75%), and less reliance on family or friends for support (84%). They were more engaged with those around them, spending more time with loved ones (69%), participating more frequently in extracurricular activities (76%), and volunteering more often (48%).
Economic prospects improved for many participants who were employed at the start of the pilot and overall participation in employment was relatively stable. Indeed, 54% were employed and 24% were unemployed before and during the pilot. About 5% reported finding employment during the pilot after previously being unemployed. Nearly 17% of respondents were employed before the pilot but became unemployed during the pilot. Of those respondents, 40.6% became unemployed to pursue further education or training. Perhaps more significant was the change in the terms of employment of those still working: 37% reported improvements in their rate of pay, 31% in their working conditions and 27% in their job security.
These work-related findings appear to dispel fears that a generous and less conditional basic income will lead to a wholesale abandonment of employment. Instead, many recipients continued to work, and others were empowered to locate more optimal jobs to improve their life chances.
Keeping in mind the limitations of our data access, our findings seem to show that a universal basic income could reduce poverty and improve population health and household well-being. Based on our findings, we believe that universal basic income would serve well as a full-fledged policy, especially during post-COVID recovery. Initiating a universal basic income at or near a living wage would allow policymakers to make necessary tweaks as they gain a deeper understanding of the merits of basic income policies.


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The findings discussed in this article are based on our full report, which can be freely accessed here. The project was conducted in collaboration with the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction.




Mohammad Ferdosi is a PhD candidate in the Public Policy program of the Department of Political Science at McMaster University, Canada.
Tom McDowell is a Lecturer for the Department of Politics and Public Administration, at Ryerson University, Canada.
Wayne Lewchuk is a Professor Emeritus in the School of Labour Studies and the Department of Economics at McMaster University, Canada. He was originally contracted by the Ontario government to be a part of the pilot’s official evaluation team.
Stephanie Ross is Director and Associate Professor of the School of Labour Studies at McMaster University, Canada.


The facts, ideas and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors; they are not necessarily those of UNESCO or any of its partners and stakeholders and do not commit nor imply any responsibility thereof. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this piece do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of UNESCO concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.