Abrupt cancellation of basic income pilot could make vulnerable people less healthy

A Toronto physician who served as an adviser on Ontario's basic income pilot project says its cancellation could have negative effects on the health of people already at higher risk of illness.

'You can't keep just keep on adding stress to vulnerable people,' Toronto physician says

The Ontario government's abrupt cancellation of the basic income pilot project could have far-reaching health effects for those participants who have started financial planning for their futures. (Matt Prokopchuk/CBC)

A Toronto physician who served as an adviser on Ontario's basic income pilot project says its cancellation could have negative effects on the health of people already at higher risk of illness. 

"It's one of the things I'm really worried about," said Kwame McKenzie, a psychiatrist and CEO of the Wellesley Institute, on Thursday. 

"If you start adding stress to an already possibly vulnerable population, then we know that has health outcomes ... You can't keep just keep on adding stress to vulnerable people without thinking that your increasing their risk of poor health," he said in an interview with CBC Radio's Metro Morning.

McKenzie was a special adviser during the development and implementation of the basic income project initiated by the previous Liberal government. Some 2,000 participants across the province were promised up to $17,000 per year for three years. 

This week, the newly elected Progressive Conservative government announced it was ending the pilot after just one year, saying it was a "disincentive" for participants to become "productive members of society." That move came despite a party spokesperson's statement before the spring election campaign that a PC government would indeed keep the pilot in place until its scheduled completion. 

Dr. Kwame McKenzie, who served as a special adviser for the basic income project, says its participants will face more stress and uncertainty now that the Ford government has announced it will wind it down. (CAM-H)

Research from other jurisdictions that have experimented with a basic income does not support the government's position, McKenzie said, adding that the three-year window would have provided ample time to draw meaningful conclusions about the pilot's efficacy. 

"So one of the reasons for doing it was to say, 'Well, does that actually work here in Ontario? And does the same intervention, which is a way of getting people out of poverty, work as well here as its worked in other places?' And now, I guess we'll never know," he said. 

Earlier this week, the provincial government announced plans to scrap the Basic Income Pilot Project. This morning, Kwame McKenzie, head of the Wellesley Institute and special advisor to that program, talks about that program, and the ethics of winding it down. 10:17

Participants in the project were based in Hamilton, Thunder Bay, Lindsay, Brantford and Brant County. It was designed to include those struggling most to make ends meet —a population that, statistically, is sicker and dies younger than wealthier populations.

In Hamilton, for example, research suggests that the richest residents live for, on average, 20 more years than the poorest people. A complicated mix of factors is at work, McKenzie said, but simply put, poorer people are more stressed-out than their peers. 

With the prospect of three years of income, however, McKenzie said many participants started to make "big life decisions" and plan for the future.

The pilot program's end will leave many of those people in financial, and sometimes psychological, turmoil, he contends. 

"That's why, as a doctor, I hope that we get some clarity soon," he said of questions surrounding how the pilot will ultimately be wound down, and what if any supports will be made available to those who took the "leap of faith" to join it.

The government has provided no concrete timeline for when those depending on the income should expect to lose it. 

"People will need support. We had some great community organizations helping people make the decision to join the basic income pilot," he continued, adding that a "cookie-cutter" approach won't suffice.

"It would be good if we could provide support and one-to one help in making new life decisions."