The Canadian province of Ontario has recently joined the list of governments that want to test what happens when you implement a guaranteed basic income.
Basic income is different from existing welfare programs in its simplicity. Most welfare and social security programs are conditional upon facts about you, like your age, your family structure, your income, or whether you are actively seeking a job. In contrast, basic income is guaranteed to everybody, no matter who you are, whether you work or not.
The prospect of replacing massive welfare bureaucracies with this extremely simple idea is one reason even plenty of conservatives have advocated some version of a guaranteed basic income.
According to Ontario's 2016 budget outline, Chapter I, Section E, “Towards a Fair Society,” the provincial government wants to run a pilot project to determine the positive and negative effects of giving every citizen in the community some form of this guaranteed stipend. The proposed pilot project “will test a growing view at home and abroad that a basic income could build on the success of minimum wage policies and increases in child benefits by providing more consistent and predictable support in the context of today's dynamic labour market. The pilot would also test whether a basic income would provide a more efficient way of delivering income support, strengthen the attachment to the labour force, and achieve savings in other areas, such as health care and housing supports.”
It's easy to see the potential flaws of a guaranteed income system. Would everybody just quit their jobs, causing the economy to flatline? Would such a radical reform of our approach to the welfare state do more harm than good? It's a possibility, but it's hard to know without testing the basic income in practice. And Ontario is not the only place where such experiments may be coming soon. Plans to study or implement a basic income are being discussed in the neighboring province of Quebec, but also in countries like Finland, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
One important thing to note is that the basic income is not just proposed as a recipe for solving the poverty issues of today. Some experts in artificial intelligence have pointed out that it may be the only line of defense humans have once machines make most human labor obsolete. So whether the basic income is ultimately a boon, a plague or something in between, it's certainly worth experimenting through pilot projects like these to understand how it plays out in the real world.