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HomeWhat's OnCanadian province to launch North America’s first major universal basic income test in 30 years

Canadian province to launch North America’s first major universal basic income test in 30 years

Ontario capital Toronto. The province is hosting the first major universal basic income test in North America in 30 years.
Ontario capital Toronto. The province is hosting the first major universal basic income test in North America in 30 years.

Image: carlo allegri/getty images

Thousands of randomly chosen Canadians may soon receive free checks in the mail.

The province of Ontario just announced that a major trial run of a universal basic income program could begin as early as this summer.

Universal basic income is a largely untested policy concept in which every citizen would get a regular government stipend with no strings attached.

The idea of such a system has bounced around academic circles for decades, but it’s gained newfound traction lately as experts worry that advances in automation and artificial intelligence could kill millions of jobs.

Ontario’s experiment will involve 4,000 low income citizens between the ages of 18 and 64 selected at random from three cities — Hamilton, Thunder Bay, and Lindsay.

Some of those chosen will receive up to $17,000 per year — or $24,000 for couples — while the rest will serve as a control.

“It’s not an extravagant sum by any means,” said Ontario premiere Katherine Wynne in a speech Monday. “But our goal is clear: We want to find out whether a basic income makes a positive difference in people’s lives.” 

The three-year pilot is expected to cost a total of $150 million pulled from the province’s coffers. 

“I’m pretty confident they have got a lot of the details worked out. We are very excited to see this getting started,” Wynne said.

Despite growing public support, little concrete data exists on whether universal basic income could actually work.

The last time the theory was put to the test in North America was a program in the Canadian province of Manitoba in the late 1970s.

Data from that study went unpublished after a new administration took power and shut it down. Luckily, researchers were able to determine decades later that the policy had a positive effect on key quality-of-life metrics like hospitalizations, mental health cases and school retention.

Ontario’s program risks a similar fate if the current liberal government is defeated in next year’s elections.

The province isn’t the only place where researchers are now giving the idea another go, however. A host of new experiments have cropped up in recent months months in India, Kenya, Finland, and the Netherlands, among others.

Silicon Valley leaders, worried that job-replacing robots might wreak havoc on the labor market, are particularly keen on the idea. 

Sam Altman, president of the prominent Y-Combinator incubator, has organized a small test in Oakland, California as well as a $10-million fund to back other tests along with Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes.

Other tech luminaries such as Elon Musk, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, and Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar have also shown interest in the concept.  

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