Inside Ontario’s Big, Bold Basic Income Experiment

The Canadian province is giving some citizens a base salary

([Image: antishock/iStock])

–and measuring how much it helps keep people out of poverty, improve their health, and give back to their community.

Alana Baltzer bought her first new winter coat recently. She’s eating vegetables and fruit now instead of junk food. And, because she’s not worrying about money, she’s having fewer bipolar episodes. The money-stress triggers aren’t there anymore. She’s also applied to college and is looking for work.

“I grew up in poverty and I never thought I would get out of it,” she says over the phone. “This is giving me the opportunity and I don’t want to waste it. I know this is one of the very few I’m going to get and I’m not going to let it go.”

Baltzer’s optimism is the result of something basic: She has more money in her pocket. The Hamilton resident is part of Ontario’s basic income experiment, which will see up to 4,000 residents receive guaranteed monthly stipends. Baltzer, who is 28, has been on disability support since 2008, and received $722 CAD a month before enrolling in the trial last year (that’s $571 USD; all the dollar figures here will be in Canadian dollars). Now she gets $1,915 a month, and she says the extra money is a “life changer.”

The pilot, one of several now starting around the world, stretches across three metro areas of Ontario: Hamilton, Thunder Bay, and Lindsay. Single recipients, like Baltzer, get up to $16,989 per year. Couples get up to $24,027 annually. If people choose to work as well, that’s fine, but you’ll be taxed at a 50% rate for anything over $200 you earn working. The stipends are roughly 75% of Canada’s official poverty line, which is about 50% of median incomes.

The idea of paying people guaranteed amounts to meet their basic needs is catching on in all kinds of places. GiveDirectly, the New York cash assistance pioneer, is organizing a big experiment in Kenya. Finland has a nationally run trial. There is a basic income pilot in Oakland, California, organized by Y Combinator, the startup accelerator. Everywhere from Scotland to India is considering similar programs, large and small.

All this basic income experimentation is driven by two main factors. Some places, like Ontario, want to find more efficient and effective ways of bringing people out of poverty. Other cities and states are focused more on the changing nature of work, including the increasing scarcity of jobs paying inflation-matching wages and full benefits, and the rise of robots and artificial intelligence that could one day put millions out of work for good.