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Ontario Premier Doug Ford

Ontario is canceling its basic income experiment

Ontario is canceling its basic income pilot program two years earlier than planned.

The Canadian province is a year into an experiment that gives 4,000 low-income participants an annual stipend, as part of an effort to determine whether a basic annual income is more effective than other social programs.

Under the pilot program, individuals received $13,000 per year and couples got $19,000.

If recipients worked while receiving the benefit, they agreed to give the government 50 cents for every dollar they earned. They were also required to opt out of some government social services.

The concept of universal basic income — or money given to individuals by a government entity with few if any stipulations attached — has gained renewed support in recent years.

Finland implemented its own two-year basic income experiment last year, though it has no plans to expand the program after 2018.

In California, the city of Stockton plans to launch a basic income program next year, in which low-income residents will receive $500 per month.

Silicon Valley is backing similar experiments in other California cities, and Hawaii last year passed a bill to start exploring what it would take to create a basic income program of its own.

Prominent politicians and business people, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, have expressed support for universal basic income as a way to offset the jobs and income lost to automation.

Those opposed to universal basic income say it is fiscally irresponsible and could discourage people from working.

In Ontario, the decision to end the basic income pilot came as part of a larger effort to reform the province’s social assistance programs.

The center-right Progressive Conservatives Party, led by Ontario Premier Doug Ford, took over the province’s government in June after 15 years of rule by the liberal party.

The government said in a statement announcing the change that instead of putting money into the experiment, which cost an estimated $115 million over three years, it would “focus resources on more proven approaches.” It did not say exactly when the program would end.

The announcement came as a surprise because a spokesperson for the Progressive Conservatives Party previously said the new leaders would continue the program and were looking forward to seeing the results.

The Ontario Liberal Party is now calling for the program to be reinstated.

In an interview with PBS NewsHour earlier this year, former Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne argued that the experiment could provide valuable data on whether the payments improved health, education and job prospects for low-income residents.

“We should be looking at different ways of providing support, ways that actually don’t punish people, but actually support people in getting on with their lives and produce better outcomes,” Wynne said.

Dr. Kwame McKenzie, a physician who served as a special adviser to the basic income project, said the program may have produced some useful data over the last year, even though it was cut short. Anecdotal stories of participants who said their lives have been improved should not be discounted, said McKenzie, the CEO of the Wellesley Institute, a Toronto-based think tank  

Annie Lowrey, a reporter and author of the book “Give People Money,” which explores the fight over universal basic income, told Fast Company that even unsuccessful experiments could force governments to be more creative about addressing income inequality and other social issues.

“We have a very limited sense of what we as a society or elected representatives could do to fix problems in the economy,” Lowrey told the website. “They could do a lot more.”

Still, McKenzie warned that basic income experiments are often hampered by politics.

“Even when you think you have cross-party support, such as in the Ontario Basic Income Pilot, political realities can change,” McKenzie wrote in an email.