Opinion

International researchers shocked by cancellation of Ontario's basic income pilot project

My report on the cancellation of Ontario's basic income pilot project was met with stunned belief in Finland late last month. People involved in similar experiments are concerned about the impact on participants and the loss of crucial information.

Policy should not be the result of intuition and instinct, but informed by sound evidence, Evelyn Forget says

Ontario Social Services Minister Lisa Macleod ended the Ontario basic income pilot project three months after enrolment was complete. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

My report in Finland on the cancellation of Ontario's basic income pilot project was met with stunned belief late last month, when I participated in a panel with representatives of basic income experiments from Finland, the Netherlands, India and Scotland.

On July 31, three months after enrolment was complete and before the first annual followup survey could be conducted, the planned three-year experiment was cancelled.

Nearly a month after the announcement, participants in the experiment still had not been contacted and told what would happen to them. 

Panel participants later contacted their counterparts involved in experiments in the U.S., in Barcelona, in Kenya and elsewhere, and composed an open letter that they asked me to deliver to Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Children, Community and Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod. They conveyed two concerns. 

First, they worried about the 6,000 Ontario participants, 4,000 of whom had been promised a basic income for up to three years, who had been left dangling by the premature cancellation.

At the time of cancellation, some participants had been receiving payments for almost a year, while others had participated for only three months. 

What will happen to the people who trusted their government and signed contracts in good faith – people who now find themselves unable to pay for apartment leases, bank loans or tuition? 

On Aug. 31, a full month after the cancellation, MacLeod announced that participants will receive payments until March 2019 "so that they can adjust."

Researchers worry that people involved in the three-year basic income pilot project, such as this family photographed by Jessie Golem, who is documenting their stories, will be left worse off when the plans they made can't be realized. (Humans of Basic Income/Jessie Golem)

While it may be easy for governments and businesses to back out of signed contracts, ordinary people may find themselves teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, dealing with collection agencies and trying to ensure they have a place to live when their current landlord loses patience. 

While a Basic Income was intended to allow people to make longer-term decisions that might help them escape poverty, the cancellation of the experiment thrust them right back into the short-term survival decision-making that is a hallmark of poverty.

Sarath Davala, one of the researchers representing an experiment in Madhya Pradesh, India, mentioned his surprise that a Canadian project could pay so little attention to research ethics, while representatives of Canada's International Development Research Centre spend so much time and money running ethics workshops for researchers in low-income countries.

Internationally important data

The second concern of panel participants is the role that Ontario's experiment played internationally.

No single research experiment is ever perfect; each has strengths and weaknesses derived from the contexts within which they are developed. The current round of basic income experiments was unique because the strengths of one project could counterbalance the weaknesses of another. Together, the data generated by these very different experiments could provide evidence for policy development worldwide.

A strong point of Finland's project is that a nationally representative sample could be selected from their data registers because informed consent was not required of participants. If selected, Finns had no choice but to participate.

In contrast, Canada required informed consent, which raises a challenge for researchers who must then ensure that those who participate are representative of the broader population.

However, Finland's project focused only on the long-term unemployed, while Ontario's project was designed to allow us to see how people who are currently working would react to a basic income. 

Finland and two sites in Ontario used a randomized controlled trial design, which is very good for certain kinds of analysis but doesn't allow researchers to investigate how a society changes when a basic income is introduced.

India and Kenya, in contrast, offered basic income to entire villages, and the Lindsay site in Ontario was similarly designed to capture these broader effects.

Together, these experiments in high-, middle- and low-income countries captured the attention of policymakers worldwide. Experiments used different designs and offered different payment structures, which would generate a breadth of data for policy development.

Then Ontario cancelled its project.

The Ontario cancellation cannot now be reversed, but perhaps we can learn from this debacle and hold our governments accountable.

Policy should not be the result of intuition and instinct, but informed by sound evidence.

We might also ask ourselves whether a seven-month reprieve for the people who opened their lives to researchers is sufficient salve for our consciences.


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About the Author

Evelyn L. Forget

Evelyn L Forget is the author of Basic Income For Canadians: The Path to a Healthier, Wealthier Society for All, which will be available Oct. 30. She is a health economist at the University of Manitoba and a contributor with EvidenceNetwork.ca, based at the University of Winnipeg.