BUSINESS
01/28/2019 15:46 EST | Updated 01/29/2019 10:26 EST

Ontario Mom Is Proof Basic Income Fixes More Than Poverty's Pain

A newly released survey shows who signed up for Ontario's pilot program.

Courtesy Etanda Arden
Etanda Arden says Ontario's basic income pilot project helped her feel like a better parent to her 13-year-old daughter, Tyler-Rose.

Etanda Arden's phone used to ring constantly with calls from bill collectors.

The single mother was studying full-time at Lakehead University, paying for rent and groceries with payments from the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). She was behind by $300 every month, so she'd pay half her bills one month and half the next, never catching up.

Arden struggled with depression and anxiety.

"I found that it really affected me as a student and as a parent. I was always preoccupied, thinking about how we were going to maintain our life. And not wanting my kid to suffer either."

It just alleviates a lot of stress.Etanda Arden

Since being on Ontario's basic income pilot project, life is different.

"It just alleviates a lot of stress," Arden told HuffPost Canada by phone from Thunder Bay, Ont.

She said she feels like a better parent, too, now that she can afford extras like field trips for her 13-year-old daughter, Tyler-Rose.

Her experience is typical for people who enrolled in the basic income pilot, new data shows. Eighty-one per cent of participants reported moderate or severe "psychological distress," according to a survey obtained by a recipient.

The pilot gave no-strings-attached payments to people living on low incomes in exchange for their participation in a research study. Single people living on less than $34,000 were eligible for up to $16,989 a year and couples living on less than $48,000 were eligible for as much as $24,027 a year. People who are working will see that amount reduced by 50 per cent of their income.

Ontario's Progressive Conservative government announced in July that it would cancel the payments and the research. This baseline survey provides the first public information about the pilot's participants. It doesn't measure the effects of the program, but it sheds a light on who signed up. The introductory survey was completed by 5,077 participants in December 2017.

Watch HuffPost Canada's video series on the basic income project:

The psychological distress statistic is the most significant piece of information in the survey, said Sheila Regehr, an advocate with the Basic Income Canada Network. She spent more than 30 years working with the federal government on welfare, employment insurance, pensions and poverty solutions.

"If you are distracted in your job you can't do well. If you're worried constantly about the daily effort to just put food on the table ... you can't be a good parent or good daughter or a good friend to somebody," Regehr told HuffPost Canada.

That makes it harder for people on social assistance to land jobs and for people in low-wage jobs to get promotions, she said.

Regehr said she was also "struck" to see that more than 56 per cent of the participants had only a high school diploma or less.

"Education is really important and yet there are so many barriers to actually improving your education, especially for people with low income and especially for people who have had the misfortune to enter the social assistance system."

More from HuffPost Canada:

For Arden, the stress of not having enough money almost drove her to quit university and go back to work. She decided to stay in school because she wants a different type of job than her previous minimum wage gigs at Chester Fried Chicken and Robin's Donuts.

"If you don't have any education, you only qualify for a minimum wage job, which I have done for years and years," Arden said. "You can't get ahead."

Arden's plans are up in the air now that basic income ends in March. She said she wanted to stay at Lakehead to get an Honours Bachelor of Arts, but that'll take another year. So instead, she may graduate with her Bachelor of Arts this year and start the search for work.

"What they're doing is making it harder because they're putting back that stress and anxiety about not having any money, which is almost what made me drop out in the first place," she said.

"I don't know if they're worried that people will take advantage and nothing will ever come of it. But my plan was to get as much education as I can in three years. So once the three years was up, I'd be self-sufficient. And okay."