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10/21/2018 10:57 EDT | Updated 10/29/2018 13:09 EDT

As Ontario Winds Down Basic Income, Photographer Jessie Golem Gives Participants A Legacy

"We need to have this conversation ... in a way that's civil and informed."

Jessie Golem is a Hamiltonian, a photographer, a piano teacher and an employee at a non-profit. To some people online, she's also a "leech," a "parasite," and a "piece of shit."

The 29-year-old took up a call to answer strangers' questions about being on Ontario's basic income pilot project on news aggregation site Reddit. While many people were supportive, congratulating her on doing meaningful work and asking thoughtful questions, many others were hostile. One person wrote Golem a message telling her to kill herself.

"I feel like the hate is wrongly directed," she told HuffPost Canada. "There are rich people, there are corporations, there are so many other things that are not paying taxes, not putting [money] into society, and not helping at all. They're a bigger drain on you than people in poverty."

Golem is participating in a pilot project launched by Ontario's former Liberal government in April 2017. Single people earning less than $34,000 and couples earning under $48,000 were eligible to apply to receive basic income. Households get as much as $24,027 a year, depending on how many people the income supports and how much money is being earned through employment.

Golem made an off-hand comment about receiving basic income on Reddit and commenters asked her to do an Ask Me Anything post, or AMA, about the experience. The post got 10,000 comments and had her frantically answering questions for days.

"There were a lot of comments like, 'Oh so you just sit around and play video games all day?'" she said. "That's far from the case. A lot of people I've met are using the money to go to college, pursue their dreams and career, be able to start a new business. These people are putting that money back into society and the economy."

Stephanie Sannuto/HuffPost Canada
Photographer Jessie Golem has taken portraits of basic income recipients across Ontario.

Golem's experience on Reddit gave her a first-hand look at an enduring problem in Canada: Prejudice against people in poverty. While Canadians on the whole are growing more supportive of aid programs for low-income people, a significant and steady minority hold a harsh, critical view of the poor.

In surveys carried out over the past two decades, there is a clear trend towards a more sympathetic view of poverty. In a 1999 Ipsos poll, 51 per cent of Canadians agreed that the poor became that way "mainly through no fault of their own." By 2018, in an Angus Reid survey, 72 per cent agreed that poor people got that way because of circumstances beyond their control.

But throughout these surveys taken across decades, some three in 10 Canadians have maintained that poverty is the result of one's own choices and actions, the result of a lack of effort on an individual's part.

"Certainly there is that core of people that do tend to believe poverty is an individual failure rather than the result of systemic causes," said Derek Cook, director of the Canadian Poverty Institute at Ambrose University in Alberta. "That's actually fairly consistent throughout history."

I think the reason people have trouble discussing poverty is not that we don't understand it. It's that we understand it all too well.Derek Cook

The anger directed at Golem online comes from fear, Cook said in an interview with HuffPost Canada.

"I think the reason people have trouble discussing poverty is not that we don't understand it. It's that we understand it all too well."

In a survey the institute carried out in Calgary, 40 per cent of respondents said they had experienced poverty at some point in their lives. If you consider other people's connections to those people, the share of the population that has been exposed to poverty is "astoundingly high," Cook said.

"The reason we like to say 'poverty is your fault' is that it distances ourselves from that reality. We recognize our vulnerability and we have experience with poverty first- or second-hand. But if it's 'your fault,' it can't happen to me."

The reality is that people fall into poverty for many reasons, only some of which individuals can control, Cook argued.

He laid out four factors that affect an individual's risk of poverty: Your level of skills; your life stage (the young and the elderly experience more poverty due to reduced earnings power); disruptive events (illness, job loss, natural disasters); and systemic factors (a global recession or poor economic policies).

"It can't be that it is all of these individuals making bad choices. There is something going on there which is deeper than that," Cook said.

Stephanie Sannuto/HuffPost Canada
Jessie Golem is a freelance photographer and operations manager of Photographers Without Borders. She's participating in Ontario's basic income pilot project, which was cut short by the province's new Progressive Conservative government.

Before being on basic income, Golem juggled four jobs. She walked dogs in the morning, did contract work for Photographers Without Borders and freelance photography jobs during the day, and taught piano lessons in the evening. She said she rarely had time to cook herself dinner and never got to bed before midnight.

"It's a very demoralizing feeling. Like, I'm working nonstop and still can barely survive."

With about $700 a month from basic income, Golem was able to stop walking dogs and teaching piano, and focus on working with the photography non-profit and developing her own business.

She's extremely passionate about the work done by Photographers Without Borders, but said it simply doesn't have the budget to pay her as a full-time employee. The organization sends volunteer photographers to document grassroots movements and the work of nonprofits around the world. In Canada, Photographers Without Borders shone a light on the work of 13 Indigenous leaders with the portrait series Indigenous Rising earlier this year.

Four months after the basic income project reached full enrollment, Ontario's new Progressive Conservative government announced it would shut down the project early. Final payments will be sent out in March 2019.

Golem decided she had to do something. She posted pleas on Facebook for other recipients of basic income to get in touch.

Camera in hand, she's travelled around the province to meet up with 66 other participants. She asked each person to write down what basic income did for them and had them hold it up for a portrait.

Jessie GOLEM
Jessie Golem has photographed basic income recipients in Hamilton, Lindsay, and Thunder Bay, Ont.

Basic income "has made it possible for me to return to school for social work so I can give back to my community," one person wrote. "It got me out of a run down motel room that had bed bugs and was not a safe place," another man said.

Other excerpts include: "It feeds my children." "BI alleviated my stress when my income wasn't enough each month." "Basic income helps our family with the atrocious costs that go along with hospital parking," one couple wrote. "#MoreImportantThanABeer," they added, referencing Ontario Premier Doug Ford's campaign pledge to lower the minimum price of beer to $1.

BI alleviated my stress when my income wasn't enough each month.

In Cook's view, Golem's efforts to put a human face on the basic income is exactly the right approach: The stigma surrounding poverty and its solutions is best fought by communicating the reality of poverty.

He cites a program in Calgary that housed the city's homeless in the basements of suburban churches, often in neighbourhoods where no homeless people had ever been seen. He credits the program with boosting support for a municipal homeless plan, which nonetheless was cancelled.

"People could put a face to the idea, put a story to it," he said.

JESSIE GOLEM
"Basic income means I can pay my guide dog's medical bills."

Interestingly, even among some Canadians who support a basic income, the notion that it will make people lazy is prevalent. In a 2016 survey from Angus Reid, between 57 and 67 per cent said they support a basic income guarantee, depending on how generous it is. But at the same time, 63 per cent said that such a scheme would discourage people from working.

That's despite the available academic evidence, which shows that past basic income trials had very little impact on workforce participation; where people left the workforce, it was most commonly to take care of family or pursue an education.

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Golem said she aims to show the public — and the premier — that basic income recipients are human beings, doing their best to contribute to society.

"I wanted to do this to dispel a myth I've experienced, where people will say that because we're receiving basic income we're being lazy, we're using the opportunity to not work, or we're leeching off the system, or we're parasites," she said.

Some people seem to value others for the type of work that they do, Golem said, and certain fields are seen as less worthy of respect than others. As a photographer and pianist, she said she doesn't get the respect that doctors, teachers and businesspeople do.

People think, "They're silly jobs and not worth anything," Golem said. "People need photography. People pay me thousands of dollars when I have good projects, to shoot photos for them ... These things do have value."

It's insulting when people assume that because her work is artistic, she should do it for free, Golem said.

"The work that I'm doing is really good. It's really meaningful."



This story is part of HuffPost Canada's No Strings Attached project, which follows Thunder Bay's Sherry Mendowegan, Lindsay's Segura family and Hamilton's Jessie Golem on their journeys with the Ontario basic income pilot project and its aftermath. Through them, we will examine the debate over the potential for basic income in a future where precarious work is increasingly common.

Photo galleryHumans of Basic Income by Jessie Golem See Gallery