The study tried to resolve questions of best practice. The answer is now, “we won’t know”.
Money, or the loss of it, has an impact on our health. There is some irony in being asked to write on the impacts of the Basic Income Pilot cancellation in Hamilton. As I began this week to write about others, I never expected to find my blood pressure elevated to 146/111 at a routine appointment today. I’ve never had hypertension. I am a Basic Income Pilot participant, and I am worried about the loss of this income. I counted on having it for more than another two years.
This impact is not a new discovery. Fifteen years ago, WHO Europe recommended an initial set of social determinants of health and since then, Canada has expanded upon those initial recommendations. We widely use them in upstream policy initiatives. Ontario’s Basic Income Pilot, at its core, was an experiment in what happens when you resolve one factor of those determinants: income. The study was created to allow freedom and flexibility for participants to make their own choices, and evaluation predominantly focused on health and wellness. The study also tried to resolve questions of best practice: income or a mixture of both, services and income? The answer is now “we won’t know”.
"The Basic Income Pilot cancellation is not just a social assistance issue, it is a health issue."
Throughout the pilot roll-out, the Roundtable has kept in touch with participants and community partners. Recipients have begun to stabilize their lives in ways that have an immediate health impact. First steps for recipients have included finding safe and healthy housing, eating well, and purchasing warm winter clothing. Once stabilized in this way, the subsequent actions of many have been profound. One participant came to the realization that he required a mental health assessment and finally got the help he needed. He is rebuilding family relationships and a stable network of supports, striving to be well enough to work again.
Another household includes a high-needs child, with one parent needing to be constantly available in case the child is sent home from school due to epilepsy and “brittle bone” disease. In this “working poor” household, income supports are minimal (approx. $300 per month), yet this small amount ensures enough funds for hospital parking passes, money for school trips and extracurricular activities (for three children). This also allowed the stay at home parent to complete a college credit in night school. Prior to BI, completing a diploma part-time would mean taking food from her children’s mouths.
"It is nearly impossible to focus on long term goals when the constant crises of living on low income leave us cognitively in a survival mentality geared to immediate needs."
A participant had grown up in poverty and continued to live in poverty as an adult on the Ontario Works system. Although diagnosed some time ago with a mental illness, it wasn’t adequately managed. Relieving the stress of uncertainty around housing and food security, eating nutritiously and getting more exercise through a modestly priced fitness program has complimented her mental health treatment plan and she feels healthier and more stable. She was just beginning to finally explore and select a college program.
For myself, it has meant an opportunity to play catch-up financially. Despite CPP-D payments and working part-time, there is never enough to deal with additional expenses that come from my disabilities or maintaining my home. Disability allowances, like the additional $6000 annually on BI, account for direct medical costs not covered by OHIP or ODB, as well as the cumulative costs of repairs and replacements from decades of life-long illness in which earning potential is statistically lower. With the BI pilot, I had the chance and flexibility to arrange my affairs in such a way that I would lower my monthly costs by the time it was over. I had the security of knowing that if my health drastically declined I wouldn’t be in danger of homelessness.
This program offered all of us hope, and the opportunity to make significant changes to our lives. It is nearly impossible to focus on long term goals when the constant crises of living on low income leave us cognitively in a survival mentality geared to immediate needs. The loss of this pilot dictates that we will continue without an evidence-based decision-making model in Ontario. Policies that stress immediate employment goals without addressing circumstances that bring people to the door of social assistance are short sighted, and they result in most returning to assistance in less than a year of securing a job. For those not on social assistance, the pilot would have shown how the changing nature of work, wages and the labour market have been impacting well-being. This abrupt end results in additional stress and high risk of homelessness: participants have contracted significant financial obligations they cannot meet without this income.
The Basic Income Pilot cancellation is not just a social assistance issue, it is a health issue, and the health equity gap in Ontario will likely continue to grow.
Laura Cattari is the Campaign Coordinator for the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction.