Out of all the ideas to end global poverty, the simplest seems to also be more effective: governments just handing out money to people. The so-called idea of basic income is catching wings, as more and more cities and even countries debate implementing it. The latest on the list is the province of Ontario, Canada.

Yes, really. Basic income

The central business district of London, Ontario, Canada. Image credits: Mathew Campbell.

As crazy as it seems, the idea of basic income is thoroughly embedded in modern economy, not on some socialist utopia. A basic income (also called unconditional basic income — UBI) is basically a form of social security in which all citizens or residents of a country regularly receive an unconditional sum of money, either from a government or some other public institution. If you also work, you get both this money and your salary. If you don’t work… then you just get this money. The idea is that this would encourage people to find more meaningful (and productive) jobs without the stress of having to support themselves. It would also help reduce bureaucracy social inequality, tackle extreme poverty, and overall force us to rethink how and why we work — something we’ll touch upon a bit later.

In recent years, proponents of a basic income have gotten a lot of support due to the rise automation and artificial intelligence, which are more likely to take your job than any immigrant. The big voices from many industries have also been vocal about basic income, particularly within the tech industry. Recently, founder and CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, Elon Musk, backed the idea:

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 “There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation,” Musk said. He reiterated his thoughts last week at the World Government Summit in Dubai, in which he said a UBI would be “necessary”.

If you’re still not convinced about robots taking your jobs, you’ve probably not read our previous story. Basically, a Chinese company fired 90% of human workers with robots — production rose by 250%, defects dropped by 80%. This is by no accounts an isolated event, more and more such stories are popping up around the world. Something along the lines of universal basic income seems not only possible but necessary to stave off the immense pressure robots and artificial intelligence are starting to exert on the global work market.

Canada’s plan

Image credits: Marc van der Chijs.

The Liberal Party currently in control of the provincial government of Ontario has announced plans to roll out a pilot for a “universal basic income” program in three cities in the spring of 2017. While the three cities haven’t been named yet, we do know quite a bit about the planned program. A single adult would receive an annual basic income of $16,989, which is about double what current social security offers but still below the poverty line. Over 1.7 million people in Ontario live on incomes below the poverty line—$20,676 for a single person. The UBI would basically provide people with just enough money to support a decent life.

Such a program is greatly needed in Ontario, where thousands of jobs vanish each year, most of them with no chance of return. The problem is that more and more factories (which are the bulk of the province’s economy) are automating their work process. They make a lot of extra profit and in an ideal world those now-unneeded workers could focus on something else, but in the real world — there’s nothing for them. Moving towards another line of work is possible in most cases, but it’s hard for people to support themselves while taking courses. This would also be a way of redistributing some of the extra wealth the companies make. Basically, having only a handful of companies enjoy the benefits of technological advancements at the expense of workers can only lead to problems.

Hugh Segal, a Conservative political strategist and longtime advocate of the idea, said this is no longer a political case, but something necessary for shifting Ontario’s economic output from a production-heavy approach to knowledge-based jobs.

“This is not something which is in any way, in my view, the precinct of the left,” Segal said in an interview. “It is in fact the precinct of rational people when looking to encourage work and community engagement and give people a floor beneath which they’re not allowed to fall.”

Chris Ballard, the minister responsible for the basic income initiative has a similar view

“If it is done right and universally accessible, it could provide opportunities for people to either explore entrepreneurship because they wouldn’t have to worry about their basic needs being covered, at least for a short period of time while they develop a business concept,” says Earle. “Similarly, it could be used to back up [people] who want to go back to school. Someone could make the choice to take time out of work to return to education in order to advance their skill set.”

Of course, there are critics of the project — the main one being that this does nothing to alleviate real poverty and only delays further, “real” action. At the moment, it’s hard to say whether it will work or not, but it seems that we’re on the clock. We need to find solutions to move people towards knowledge jobs because otherwise, we’ll end up with over-profitable companies and an impoverished society.