Ontario’s new Conservative government has said it will scrap the province’s basic income pilot, calling it expensive and unsustainable – and bringing an abrupt end to North America’s first government-backed trial of the idea in decades.
The previous Liberal government launched the pilot program last year,touting it as a unique three-year foray into a policy touted as a panacea to poverty, bloated bureaucracy and the rise of precarious work.
The C$150m pilot recruited 4,000 participants across three regions of the Canadian province, ranging from people working in low-paying or precarious jobs to those on social assistance. Social scientists watched closely as the unconditional payments began to flow last year, tracking whether the funds would improve health, education and housing outcomes.
Even at its launch, uncertainty hung over whether the multi-year project would survive Ontario’s June election. In April, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives said that the party would push forward with the trial.
Soon after, the new government seemingly reversed its position on basic income. On Tuesday, Lisa MacLeod, the Ontario minister responsible for social services, announced the end of the pilot, which she described as “quite expensive”, adding that it was “clearly not the answer for Ontario families”.
She did not back her stance with any data, despite being pressed by reporters. “It was certainly not going to be sustainable,” she said. “Spending more money on a broken program wasn’t going to help anyone.”
Her government’s decision comes months after Finland said it would wind down its own trial of basic income, bringing an end to Europe’s first national, government-backed experiment.
In Canada, where nearly one in five children live in poverty – a rate that is among the highest in the OECD and more than three times that of Nordic countries – leaders from across the political spectrum have championed the idea of basic income.
Those on the left have pushed the idea as a means of fighting poverty and the steady erosion of stable jobs with pensions and benefits, while the right envision it as a way to streamline the bureaucratic welfare systems.
After Ontario launched its pilot, recipients began detailing how their lives had changed; the funds had afforded them healthier food, warm clothes for winter and even a long-postponed visit to the dentist. Others used the funds to go back to school or invest in their own businesses.
The Hamilton resident Dave Cherkewski, 46, said the monthly payments had eased the stress of daily life, enabling him to better cope with a mental illness that had kept him out of the workforce since 2002.
Now he was gearing up to return to work, hoping to find a role where he could support others with mental health challenges. “With basic income I will be able to clarify my dream and actually make it a reality,” he told the Associated Press.
“Because I can focus all my effort on that and not worry about, ‘Well, I need to pay my $520 rent, I need to pay my $50 cellphone, I need to eat and do other things.’”
On Tuesday, MacLeod declined to elaborate on how and when the basic income program would end, saying only that her government would seek to end the program “ethically”.