Universal basic income works—if you do it Canada-style

MIT Technology Review

Dana Bowman, 56, expresses gratitude for fresh produce at least 10 times in the hour and a half we’re having coffee on a frigid spring day in Lindsay, Ontario. Over the many years she scraped by on government disability payments, she tended to stick to frozen vegetables. She’d also save by visiting a food bank or buying marked-down items near or past their sell-by date.

But since December, Bowman has felt secure enough to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. She’s freer, she says, to “do what nanas do” for her grandchildren, like having all four of them over for turkey on Easter. Now that she can afford the transportation, she might start taking classes in social work in a nearby city. She feels happier and healthier—and, she says, so do many other people in her subsidized apartment building and around town. “I’m seeing people smiling and seeing people friendlier, saying hi more,” she says.

Jim Garbutt sees moods brightening, too, at A Buy & Sell Shop, a store he and his wife run on Lindsay’s main street. Sales are brisker for most of what they sell: used furniture, kitchen items, novelties. A Buy & Sell Shop is the kind of place where people come in just to chat—“we’re like Cheers, without the alcohol,” Garbutt says—and more and more people seem hopeful. “Spirits are up,” he says.

What changed? Lindsay, a compact rectangle amid the lakes northeast of Toronto, is at the heart of one of the world’s biggest tests of a guaranteed basic income. In a three-year pilot funded by the provincial government, about 4,000 people in Ontario are getting monthly stipends to boost them to at least 75 percent of the poverty line. That translates to a minimum annual income of $17,000 in Canadian dollars (about $13,000 US) for single people, $24,000 for married couples. Lindsay has about half the people in the pilot—some 10 percent of the town’s population.

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