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What Happens When You Give Basic Income to the Poor? Canada Is About to Find Out

Canada puts its money where its mouth is and prepares for a 'no strings attached' basic income trial that it hopes will break the cycle of poverty. 


Ontario is poised to become a testing ground for basic income in 2017 as part of a pilot program. Hugh Segal is the special advisor to the Canadian province and a former senator. He believes a supplemental income of $1,320 a month could provide a viable path to poverty abatement—effectively replacing welfare programs and a system he described as “seriously demeaning” in a paper discussing this basic income pilot project.

Segal suggests this pilot project would provide real evidence to whether basic income is the solution to poverty many governments have been seeking. It would answer many of the burning questions and concerns regarding such a system:

  • Can basic income policies provide a more efficient, less intrusive, and less stigmatizing way of delivering income support for those now living in poverty?
  • Can those policies also encourage work, relieve financial and time poverty, and reduce economic marginalization?
  • Can a basic income reduce cost pressures in other areas of government spending, such as healthcare?
  • Can a basic income strengthen the incentive to work, by responsibly helping those who are working but still living below the poverty line?
  • In the United States, welfare programs are the staple of big government—a Republican nightmare. Paul Ryan has indicated he wants to phase-out these entitlement programs, however, he’s also concerned about solving the poverty issue in America. If Ontario’s proposed three-year project provides compelling evidence that basic income could do both, we may have a bi-partisan solution.

    Segal is a conservative. In his view, welfare programs help alleviate some of the symptoms of poverty, but provide no long-term program to get people out.

    “Testing a basic income is a humane and useful way to measure how so many of the costs of poverty (in terms of productivity, health, policing, and other community costs, to name only a few) might be diminished, while poverty itself is reduced and work is encouraged,” Segal says in the report.

    A guaranteed income would provide a floor no one would fall beneath and citizens would receive it regardless of employment status. Conservatives like it because it provides an elegant solution that could replace the welfare state and the left love it because it provides a greater social architecture.

    However, many question how giving people free money could fix many of our socio-economic issues. But we won’t know if we don’t try—if we don’t do the research to find a solution, which is what Segal suggests.

    "There cannot be, nor should there be, any guarantees about what results a pilot might generate,” Segal writes. “The objective behind this endeavor should be to generate an evidence-base for policy development, without bias or pre-determined conclusion."

    This test of basic income won’t be the first. Researchers and governments across the globe have started implementing similar tests to see what happens when you give people no-strings-attached cash. Finland, the Dutch city of Utricht, and Kenya all have plans to create programs to test this system. Segal believes a program in Ontario could add to this growing body of research.

    "This Ontario initiative takes place at a time when other jurisdictions, in Canada and abroad, are working in different ways toward a Basic Income approach to better reduce poverty,” he wrote. “The opportunity to learn from and engage with these other initiatives should not be overlooked, nor should approaches being tested elsewhere be necessarily re-tested here."

    A study in Manitoba, Canada done back in the 1970s provides us with an idea of what a community receiving basic income would look like. Many believe people would stop working, and become lazy. They would be half right, some people did stop working in Manitoba. But when you look at the data a little closer, we begin to see how poverty starts at an early age and how basic income could help them get out.

    Allow me to explain: People in the town received a set income of $9,000 a year (by today's standards) from the government. Evelyn Forget, an economist and professor at the University of Manitoba, who looked over the data from the study says there was a 9% reduction in working hours among two main groups of citizens.

    Here’s the kicker: New mothers were using their additional income to extend their maternity leaves and spend more time with their infants, and teenage boys were using that income to stay in school.

    “When we interviewed people, we discovered that prior to the experiment, a lot of people from low-income families, a lot of boys in particular, were under a fair amount of family pressure to become self-supporting when they turned 16 and leave school. When Mincome came along, those families decided that they could afford to keep their sons in high school just a little bit longer,” Forget told PRI in an interview.

    Poverty affects all of us in some way (at some point 3 in 5 Americans experience it personally in their lifetime). All of us pay for its upkeep through taxes and can see how it wears down the institutions within our local communities. Basic income could be the solution. We have some data; we need more in order to make the proper call.

    Ontario’s experiment will show what would happen if people between the age of 18 to 65, living below the poverty line, received a monthly income of $1,320 ($1,820 if they are disabled). Would they be better able to save and find work?

    “There’s no magic bullet,” said Jennefer Laidley of the Income Security Advocacy Centre. “So it’s key that government is now exploring various solutions — reforming existing social assistance programs, improving the quality of work, and considering basic income.”

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    • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
    • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
    • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

    Dramatic and misleading

    Image: Reddit / SICResearch

    The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

    Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

    The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

    Let's zoom in:

    • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
    • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
    • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
    • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
    • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
    • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

    "Frightening map"

    Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

    This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

    • "The end is near."
    • "The idiocracy grows."
    • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
    • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
    For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
    • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
    • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
    • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
    • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

    Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

    • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
    • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
    • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
    • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

    "Old people learning to Google"

    Image: Google Trends

    CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

    But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

    • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
    • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
    • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
    • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

    A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

    The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

    One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

    Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

    It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

    CNN, Fox and MSNBC

    Image: Google Trends

    CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

    For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

    • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
    • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
    • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

    And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

    The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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