Giving low-income families unconditional monthly payments to cover basic necessities would likely be the best way to fight food insecurity, a new report argues.
Food insecurity, which ranges from worrying about one’s ability to put food on the table to having to skip meals in order to make ends meet, affects around 12 per cent of the population in Ontario, reads the study, by the Northern Policy Institute (NPI), a non-partisan think-tank.
Although the research focuses on Ontario, which just rolled out a small basic income pilot program, its conclusions apply broadly to all of Canada, where a similar proportion of families struggle to afford enough food despite various government anti-poverty policies, according to Valerie Tarasuk, author of the report and professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.
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Affordable housing, food banks and raises in the minimum wage have failed to make a dent in the share of Ontario’s food-insecure households, but the available evidence suggests a guaranteed basic income would, writes Tarasuk.
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It’s not just about how much you make, but also about how secure your income is
Affordable housing and food banks in Ontario have failed to stomp out hunger, and a basic income would likely work better than current anti-poverty government strategies because it’s a blanket approach, argues Tarasuk. Anyone below a set income threshold would get a certain amount of money.
“There is no evidence that food insecurity is caused by households’ failure to allocate sufficient income to food,” notes the paper. In other words, if someone doesn’t make enough to eat, and you give them a little more money, you can be sure they’re going to spend that extra income on food before anything else.
The study showed that families and individuals with incomes below $30,000 were dramatically more likely to not be able to afford enough food.
What about just boosting the minimum wage, then?
That likely wouldn’t be enough, either, according to Tarasuk, first, because minimum-wage hikes tend to be too small to make a difference.
“Even the adoption of a $15 minimum or ‘living’ wage is unlikely to have much impact,” reads the paper.
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Second, the minimum wage does nothing to improve income security for Canadians who have unstable employment or are cobbling together multiple part-time jobs, which tends to be a large share of the Canadians who can’t always buy enough food.
Having a reliable source of funds coming in every month can make an enormous difference, even if the money isn’t very much, Tarasuk told Global News.
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Evidence of that is the surprisingly low rate of low-income seniors who go hungry in Canada. That’s largely because of the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) and Old Age Security (OAS), said Tarasuk.
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While GIS and OAS amounts won’t make anyone rich, they represent stable income that’s pegged to inflation levels, she noted. This often allows seniors to save a little and plan ahead, which better enables them to ride out financial adversities, she added.
Canada’s low rates of food insecurity among seniors are “a powerful statement about the strength of our pension program,” she told Global News.
A basic income would apply a similar approach to help working-age Canadians and children.
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How Ontario’s basic income plan works
Ontario’s basic income pilot, which the province is currently rolling out in three communities, will see some low-income residents receive a guaranteed minimum income for a period of three years, regardless of whether they are working or not.
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Editor’s note: The following paragraph has been modified to reflect the fact that eligible Ontario residents will lose $0.5 of basic income for every $1 they earn.
Eligible individuals will receive up to $16,989 per year. People will lose $0.5 of the basic income transfer for every $1 they earn, meaning that people earnings around $34,000 and over won’t get anything. Couples will receive up to $24,027 per year, less half of any income earned.
Notably, the program excludes seniors because most of them already receive federal and provincial pension benefits.
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A basic income program could lower public health-care costs
Critics of basic income worry that such schemes would be unaffordable, but the NPI report suggests governments might be able to recoup at least some of those costs through lower health-care spending.
READ MORE: What do Canadians think of basic income? It will reduce poverty but could raise taxes
Food insecurity, in fact, is strongly correlated with higher per-capital health care costs. Canadian children in households that can’t guarantee every meal are more likely to suffer from conditions like asthma and depression. Adults have a greater probability of developing a multitude of chronic diseases.
In Ontario, the average health-care cost for households affected by severe food insecurity was around $4,000 per year, compared to only $1,600 for those who never had to worry about putting food on the table.