In the near future, 4,000 residents of Ontario, Canada will begin receiving a monthly check from their government. It's not the traditional social service subsidy you may imagine: the type received after days or months of laboring through bureaucratic channels and meeting a narrow set of criteria. In fact, only residency, low income status, and being between the ages of 18 and 64 are required for consideration for this program pilot. It's all part of the Ontario Basic Income Project, an almost stringless government payment program that may set a new standard for poverty and income inequality management in North America.
"Basic income is a way to insure that people are able to meet their basic needs and live with dignity regardless of their work status," said Jenna van Draanen, Secretary of the Board of Directors of Basic Income Canada Network, an independent basic income advocacy and resource network, to VICE Impact. "We believe that from there, people are able to then invest in their own education or make decisions that are best for them."
When the program launches later this spring, payments will be monthly, and offer up to $24,027 for couples and $16,989 for individuals annually. The funds provided through the Ontario Basic Income Project are not intended to provide pilot recipients with a lavish quality of life, Van Draanen says, but instead lay the foundation for individuals to rise out of poverty and supplement themselves with a self-earned income.
Basic Income projects are interpreted differently, based on need and location, but the philosophy is defined by the Basic Income Earth Network as "a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement. The public and political response has been largely positive, says Daniel Schultz, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services.
"Providing people who are living on low incomes with a basic income could make a profound difference to their lives," Schultz told VICE Impact. "This new approach could expand opportunities for people on low incomes and help ensure that everyone shares in Ontario's economic growth. So it is an approach we are considering seriously."
While the concept of an automatic, unconditional government payment may sound like the pipe dream of a socially-minded think tank, basic income programs have garnered support on both sides of the political spectrum. To conservatives, the program is attractive for reducing the expensive bureaucracy required to manage the dozens of specific social programs intended to promote income stability by centralizing the goal. For progressives, the philosophy prioritizes issues of income inequality and poverty with a humane and direct approach.
While basic income projects have been successfully piloted in countries ranging from Finland to Kenya, Ontario's program is one of the first in recent history to target a country of the size, economic diversity, and global power of Canada. It begs the question: could this model transfer to its southern neighbor?
Canada varies from the U.S. in population, demographics, and public policy, but rates of poverty are relatively comparable. In 2011, almost 13 percent of Canadians lived with low income status before taxes, according to government reports. Comparably, 15 percent of Americans lived in poverty the same year, according to the census bureau.
It's impossible to identify a single root cause of poverty and income inequality in the U.S., but structural demographic factors including race, class, gender, and geography are inarguable leading factors, and roadblocks to mobility out of poverty including job availability and education. No two basic income plans are identical, but consideration for the unique social, political, and demographic variables in the U.S. may make basic income a viable model in many parts of the country.
And the idea of a basic income in the U.S. isn't new. According to Karl Winderquest, an associate professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and Co-chair of the Basic Income Earth Network, basic income has been piloted in the U.S. four times, and aspects of the philosophy have already been adopted into successful policy.
Notably, the Alaska Dividend has been distributing payouts to Alaskan residents since 1982, with the goal of redistributing a portion of the revenue gained from Alaskan natural resources to benefit current and future generations. In 2015, over $2,000 were given to individual residents of Alaska, virtually without qualification. Alaska's payments are relatively modest, and do not fit the full spectrum of basic income qualifications, particularly as payments are annual and may not qualify as "periodic," however scholars including Winderquest consider it to be one of the clearest derivatives of basic income in the Western world.
As basic income grows on the local scale and in global pilots, the innovative nature of the basic income philosophy is beginning to take root in the heartland of American invention. Silicon Valley startup-funder, Y Combinator is in the preparing to launch a short term basic income pilot project in Oakland, California and hopes to spread the project to larger-scale, long term pilots in the future.