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  • Elaine Power

Social Assistance or Basic Income



The people interviewed for this project who were on social assistance spoke of deep despair and fatigue, a sense of hopelessness and abandonment by society. They felt that no one cared about them. Many had contemplated suicide, especially single people.


In contrast, participants on Ontario’s Basic Income Pilot project (OBIP) spoke of the “transformative” effect on their lives and the sense of hope for the future that gave them the ability to plan and make different choices. Partly, this was a result of the increase in the amount of income they received, but it was also the stability of the income and its unconditionality, along with the lack of surveillance. Not surprisingly, the physical and mental health of OBIP participants improved dramatically.



Moira is a single woman in her late 50s with multiple chronic health conditions. She spent 18 years raising her son, who had profound disabilities and needed 24-hour care. Moira says that those were her best 18 years. She lives in a small remote community in northern Newfoundland, where the ocean brings her a sense of serenity, but she can barely afford to live. When she moved to Newfoundland, she thought she could keep her Canada Disability Pension and collect income assistance from the provincial government; instead, the province takes her Canada Disability Pension for every dollar of income assistance she received. She is left to try to survive on $712 per month income assistance, plus federal and provincial tax credits and the medical benefits that accompany being on social assistance.


Social assistance falls under provincial jurisdiction, so the rates vary across the country, but not by any logic. Being on social assistance anywhere in this country almost guarantees being thrust into deep poverty. In 2019, a single person considered employable would receive anywhere between $7442/year (Nova Scotia) and $11,245/year (PEI) or between 32% to 51% of the Market Basket Measure (MBM) (Canada’s official poverty measure). Most provinces — except Newfoundland and Labrador — provide somewhat more money to those on disability programs, though these are still well below the poverty line, ranging from 44% of the MBM (Alberta) to 72% of the MBM (Quebec).


As Moira states, being on social assistance is deeply stigmatized, a source of great shame. Application processes are onerous; one must prove destitution before becoming eligible. Myriad arcane bureaucratic rules and regulations keep people under surveillance, uncertain and uneasy. For example, Moira was deemed ineligible to receive several hundred dollars to cover a medical transportation expense because she did not accept the emergency room physician’s treatment, believing that he did not understand her complex medical needs and that the treatment would actually have killed her. Her lack of eligibility for “not following the rules” meant that the payment would be deducted from her already deeply inadequate monthly cheque.


One of the great promises of an adequate basic income is that it would reduce health care costs. For those concerned with the cost of a basic income program, it should be reassuring to consider the many hidden costs of poverty and the economic benefits of bringing millions of Canadians out of poverty. The Canadian Medical Association has estimated that over 20% of our health care costs are directly related to poverty. Other research has shown that as food insecurity (an indicator of deprivation) worsens, health care costs increase dramatically. And the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives estimates that every dollar invested in poverty reduction would eventually save two dollars. The savings from poverty reduction will take time to realize, though even the short-lived 4-year Mincome basic income experiment in 1970s Manitoba showed an 8.5% reduction in hospitalization rates. If the Ontario Basic Income Pilot had been allowed to run as designed, and not prematurely cancelled by the Ford government, we would have had solid contemporary data about the effects of basic income on individuals and the potential for government savings.


The economic savings to be gained by lifting people out of poverty are important. But hearing the stories of how those health care dollars would be saved—by reduced stress, access to better quality food and housing, hope for the future—is profound and deeply moving. It highlights the question Moira raises at the end of the video: why??Why do we keep people trapped in poverty? Why is this acceptable in a country as rich as ours? To keep people trapped in a system that is so inadequate and so punitive must mean that we believe they deserve their fate somehow. Why do we so loath those who live in poverty?


It is time to dismantle the outdated Victorian stereotypes on which our punitive social assistance systems have been built. It is time to create an income security program for the 21st century in which all have the opportunity to live a dignified life and meet their basic needs. This is the promise we made in 1948, when we signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes the right to an adequate standard of living.


For more information:


Canada without Poverty


Welfare in Canada 2019


Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 25:

The Right to an Adequate Standard of Living


Southern Ontario’s Basic Income Experience


The Case for Basic Income and Health


The Case for Basic Income: Freedom, Security, Justice


For more about Moira’s situation on CBC News:

“Home is where her heart is, but homeowner with disability needs help to stay there”




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