Basic income pilot: Let’s not reinvent the wheel

Hamilton Spectator

People living with less than most of us do better when they have decent incomes. Our vulnerable neighbours become less vulnerable when they can afford healthy food, decent housing, and time to care for their children.

Why, then, is Ontario — a province with a poverty reduction strategy and a newly stated interest in a basic income guarantee (BIG) — launching a research study to see if more money will help poor people?

When the Guaranteed Income Supplement was introduced to help poor seniors, the evidence for the need was taken as given: too many people our age sought to live on destitution-level incomes. (The anecdote that spurred action more than any other was that seniors were seen buying dog food for themselves.) Similarly with the Child Tax Benefit, evidence for the need was drawn directly from the poverty of their parents.

Yet there is much energy being invested in planning a basic income pilot study in Ontario. Better to forgo the pilot and work toward a basic income guarantee, in partnership with the federal government.

But a pilot we have. How, then, to design it in the most useful manner?

Let’s not set up a “control group” of people who don’t get a basic income to compare them to people who do. Such a random control trial (RCT) would be like a clinical medical trial. But such studies end when the treatment is shown to be helpful. Since we know that a basic income will be beneficial, it would be wrong to have a control group that does not receive the benefit.

People in control groups may well resent the government and — more worryingly — those who do receive the income, especially if the control group comes from the same community. If the control group comes from elsewhere, the study’s validity would be compromised. And if the perception of unfairness were picked up in the media and through word of mouth, it would stoke negative attitudes about basic income itself. One then could not control the trajectory of the story.

In contrast to the RCT approach, we need to use the pilot research to understand the researched and the researchers as partners. Let’s find out together what happens when people receive a guaranteed basic income.

This eliminates the need for control groups. We would start by asking what people are doing on Day One. And as the study progressed, we would compare the same people six months, then a year, then two years later. And when the pilot includes a whole community — a saturation study — we could evaluate social change on the community as well as the individual level.

Pilot project researchers would come up with a list of signposts: Education levels. Participation in paid and unpaid work. Hospital visits. Food bank use. What are the children and youth in the family doing? Extracurricular activities? Sports? Problems with the criminal justice system? How do kids feel about their future prospects? Are they confident, anxious or terrified about the future? What are participants’ stress levels?

As the analysis proceeds, we will learn how people cope and what they feel. Have they done things differently? Do they feel more confident as parents, students, workers, volunteers, artists?

Sheila Regehr, a leading BIG proponent, recently emphasized the need for clarity about the goal of the basic income pilot. She described what happened when Norway considered paternity benefits. The aim was to increase men’s sharing of parental responsibility, to find out how best to design a program that produced the desired goals. So during the pilot adjustments were made to help the program work better. This is how a BIG pilot should proceed.

The goal of a basic income pilot is to see how alleviating the terrible scourge of poverty changes the lives of men, women and children; how a basic income helps people live productively and confidently in an age of precarious employment and underemployment; and how a basic income can support unpaid caring and volunteer work.

Such a pilot will show how having a secure income enables people who are now excluded to live decent lives, to plan their future with energy and hope, and to participate in social, cultural, and political life.

Roberta Hamilton is Professor Emerita in the Department of Sociology at Queen’s University. Jamie Swift is an author and activist.