'I feel very betrayed': Basic income recipients react to one of world's largest experiments suddenly being canceled

  • Ontario, Canada rolled out a basic income pilot project to 4,000 residents in July of last year.

  • The program was suddenly canceled after Ontario's new government, led by Doug Ford, decided it wasn't worth funding.

  • "I feel I have been stabbed in the back by my own government," one of the program's participants told Business Insider.

Anger and outrage, shock and betrayal: Those were some of the raw emotions after one of the world's largest basic income experiments was suddenly canceled.

Earlier this week, Ontario, Canada's conservative new premier, Doug Ford, pulled the rug out from under the experiment, which provided 4,000 people living at or near the poverty line with a living stipend.

Business Insider contacted a number of people who were receiving income under what was supposed to be a three-year pilot project put into place by Ontario's previous government.

It lasted only one year, despite Ford's campaign promise to keep the pilot project funded.

"I feel I have been stabbed in the back by my own government," 29-year-old Alana Baltzer, a basic income recipient, told Business Insider in an interview. "I honestly have no idea what's happening next because there has been no communication whatsoever."

The pilot project was supposed to run for three years — it lasted one

Basic income is a system in which everyone regularly receives a check from the government, regardless of income.

In Ontario's program, which is more of a modified basic income experiment, people who received the stipend had to meet a certain income threshold.

Under the program, people who made less than $34,000 (CAD) per year were eligible to receive up to $17,000 annually, and couples who made under $48,000 received up to $24,000 per year, minus 50% of any earned income.

Kenya, Finland, and a handful of other countries and cities have rolled out experimental basic income pilots, intending to hand the results over to social scientists and economists to evaluate whether it helps lift people out of poverty.

When Ontario's previous Liberal government began one of the biggest basic income experiments in the world in July 2017 — extending the pilot project to 4,000 residents — activists around the world were hopeful.

But when Ford's Progressive Conservative Party took office on June 29, priorities shifted, and the $150 million project was suddenly canceled.

Some recipients on Wednesday received an email saying their payments would continue through August, but didn't receive any further details on when the program would be phased out, CBC reported.

Basic income advocates around the world slammed the Ford government's decision.

"I am so angry right now, I am shaking," Scott Santens, a prominent basic income advocate, said on Twitter. "Can you imagine a politician pulling the plug on a vaccine that was dramatically reducing cancer so much that it's already arguably unethical to not immediately expand it to everyone?"

Hugh Segal, a former Conservative senator and one of the architects of the basic income pilot, said the "new Ontario government is obviously deeply challenged on the issue of fairness," in a scathing editorial in The Globe and Mail following the project's cancellation.

Tom Cooper, the director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, a local advocacy group, told Business Insider that people were "left reeling" after the program was canceled.

'Anger and disillusionment'

Some of the people involved in the project told Business Insider they suffered from mental health issues and relied on the money provided for items like food and winter coats. The money also served as a financial runway while they searched for jobs.

Dave Cherkewski, a 46-year-old Hamilton, Ontario resident, told Business Insider he fell into poverty and suffered mental health issues after leaving his job at a telecommunications company.

"At times, I didn't know where I was going to sleep, I didn’t know where my next meal would come from," Cherkewski told Business Insider.

After living in poverty for 15 years, Cherkewski said he learned to survive on very little money — "10 or 13 thousand dollars a year."

"This basic pilot was a huge ray of hope," he said. "Which was something I don't buy into early because I have grown up in low-income and I realize life isn't a whole bunch of sunshine."

When he was informed of the pilot project's cancellation by a local CBC reporter, he said his initial reaction was "shock."

That sense of shock and disbelief was echoed by Baltzer, a basic income recipient. "It's just a lot of anger and disillusionment at the Ontario government right now," she said.

For Baltzer, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the stipend was the difference between having enough money to live on every month and struggling to get by on the Ontario government's disability support program.

"It showed me what it's like to live with dignity and freedom," she said.

Jaylynn Rose, a 21-year-old participant in the pilot program who said she suffers from mental health issues, told Business Insider cutting off the basic income program would "put so many people even deeper into poverty."

Rose said she hoped to use the money from the pilot project to apply to college, but now, she'll have no way to afford it.

"I feel very betrayed by the Ontario government," Rose said.

Basic income creates the incentive to find a job, according to recipients

Lisa MacLeod, Ontario's Minister of Children, Community, and Social Services, told reporters the basic income project was a "disincentive" for people to look for work.

Baltzer, however, says it's motivation. "It is kind of hard to find a job when you are struggling for food and you don’t have money to keep your phone active, and it goes down out of service," she said. " You can’t afford to buy job clothing. You can’t even do laundry to wash job interview clothing."

On a basic income, Baltzer said she could eat healthier, buy clothes, go to the gym, do laundry, and afford phone and internet service to communicate with potential employers.

Two-thirds of basic income recipients involved in the pilot program were already working, according to Cooper, the local advocate.

"These are folks who may be working one or two part-time jobs but just not earning enough money at those jobs or getting enough hours to pull themselves and their families out of poverty," Cooper said. "These individuals were optimistic about the future, and I think for many of them, it's a sense of betrayal. People's dreams have been shattered."

Some former recipients and advocates say they hope to bring the fight to Canada's federal government.

"I’m not sure if that’s a very realistic goal at this point, but we are certainly going to have those conversations," Cooper said.

Cherkewski, for his part, wants to fight to keep the program alive.

"I am going to take that anger, I am going to channel it, and I am going to come after this government," he said.

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Originally published