Transforming Lives: Insights from the Ontario Basic Income Pilot Program in Lindsay

Karen Uwimana 

In a partnership with Trent University’s Community Research Centre, The Lindsay Advocate has been working with the International Development Studies Department. This partnership has allowed two students to research Lindsay and the Basic Income pilot by talking to community members and leaders to continue the conversation in a two-part series. This opinion piece is part one of two in the series.

In 2017, Lindsay became the site of a groundbreaking experiment — the Ontario Basic Income Pilot Program. Designed to assess the impact of providing unconditional cash transfers to residents, regardless of employment status, the program aimed to address poverty, food insecurity, and unemployment. Despite the early cancellation by the newly elected provincial government, the pilot’s effects were positive across the board.

At the core of the basic income pilot program was the goal of providing financial stability to participants. By offering a guaranteed income, it aimed to alleviate the stress of financial insecurity and empower individuals to pursue their goals. It also served as a potential alternative or support to the traditional social assistance programs such as the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and Ontario Works. Unlike those social programs, the pilot puts money directly into participants’ hands which enabled them to cover expenses and plan for the future. The pilot program gave recipients a new sense of independence. Many recipients echoed the feeling that social services can often feel infantilizing, as these programs pay recipients necessities, such as housing and they are left with the remainder, which is not much.

Dana Bowman, a past recipient of the basic income pilot program, shares the following regarding her experience with the ODSP and the Ontario Basic Income Pilot Program.

“ODSP all goes in one day. After bills and groceries you’re broke and scrambling, there’s nothing to spare. If there’s an emergency, you have to borrow. That cushion from basic income that was given without a clawback means if your tires blow on your car or the transmission goes, you are able to get it looked at to get your repairs done. The program gave me the financial independence to make my own decisions. It gave me dignity. It gave me independence. I could manage my own money and that was taken away from me.”

The theme of agency is something that came up with all the participants interviewed, especially in relation to food choices. Kawartha Lakes is considered to be one of the most food insecure areas in Ontario. Household food insecurity was reported to be approximately 13 per cent in 2019. The Kawartha Lakes Food Coalition’s Food Security Working Group has been actively working to address the underlying causes of poverty and food insecurity by advocating for income-based solutions, including a basic income guarantee. Food security, as defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization, is achieved when all people have consistent access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food for an active and healthy life.

The pilot also provided recipients with some relief regarding their food related stresses. Heather Kirby, the executive director of Kawartha Lakes Food Source, said there was a significant dip in food bank visits during the basic income pilot. Overall, the number of clients decreased during the pilot as participants were able to buy their own food and did not need to rely on the food bank. However, when the pilot was cancelled, there was an increase in use because clients had made financial commitments, such as rent, car repairs, or for other reasons, to improve their situation.

Not only did recipient nutrition improve but so did their overall financial situation. Critics of basic income policy often raise concerns about its potential impact on workforce participation. However, proponents argue that it can enhance employment opportunities by providing individuals with the financial security to pursue meaningful work.

Councillor Mike Perry says the “dollars were injected into the community.” He cited a local business that sells gently used furniture, which “certainly saw an increase. It promoted a sense of solidarity among recipients and non-recipients.”

Many also took this opportunity to retrain and retool to leave for a more suitable career path for their needs. Tracey Mechefske, a past recipient of the program, started her own skin care business. Alongside selling her products, Mechefske also spent some time going to homeless shelters and recovery centres to teach individuals how to make soaps and other hygiene products on a budget for themselves. Since the cancellation she shares it has gotten much harder to do such things for the community.

After conducting interviews with past recipients, it is evident it was a grave mistake to cancel the program so early on. The negative effects of this early cancellation are clear and present for individuals and the community of Lindsay. Many having planned for three years in the future, the program’s expected length, feel as though they have been betrayed by the Conservative government, given the party promised to keep the program for its full three years, as stated during the election campaign.

The Ontario Basic Income Pilot Program in Lindsay provided a glimpse into a future where financial security, food access, and employment opportunities are more equitable and accessible to all. With the benefit of hindsight, Mechefske wants everyone to know that basic income is about a lot more than just money.

“It’s about self-esteem, and dignity, and being able to be part of a community, and part of society, and feeling good about yourself and not worrying about having to stay home because you have no money.”