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Why a Struggling Town Voted Against a Basic Income

Smiths Falls, Ontario seems like the perfect host for a pilot.

Jordan Pearson

Jordan Pearson

Smiths Falls is a small town in Ontario that has been absolutely devastated by the realities of the modern economy over the last decade or so.

First, in 2004, a group home for the mentally disabled that employed 800 people announced its closing. Then in 2007 came what many thought might be the death blow for the economically depressed community: the Hershey's chocolate plant, which had been a fixture of the local economy for decades, shipped out to Mexico. But that wasn't all—one year later, Stanley Tools, a manufacturing company, also said it would shutter for good. At the time, the total job losses amounted to nearly 20 percent of the town's entire population.

You'd think, then, that Smiths Falls would be eager to host a basic income pilot project being planned by the Ontario Liberals. The idea is, essentially, to replace the financial aspects of employment and disability insurance with a monthly, no-strings-attached lump sum that may be even greater than what recipients get currently. It's intended to top up the incomes of people who earn below a certain threshold.

But on Monday night, the town's city council shot down the idea of even expressing interest in participating in the basic income pilot.

Read More: The Town Where Everyone Got Free Money

The vote was close—three to two against—and was undertaken with just five out of a total seven councillors present. Council's say isn't final, however, and some citizens of Smiths Falls have taken to petitioning city council to reconsider.

But why did Smiths Falls pass up on basic income in the first place? The answer is, sadly, plain old pull-up-your-bootstraps thinking.

"I don't think basic income is right for any place, not just Smiths Falls," said Councillor Dawn Quinn, who voted against expressing interest in participating in the basic income pilot, in an interview. "Until you educate people, throwing money at it is not going to fix the problem. People have to learn how to use their money."

When I asked what she meant by this, Quinn explained that folks sit around in Tim Hortons all day instead of looking for jobs, and they should consider buying a tin of Tim Hortons coffee to make at home instead of buying a cup. And, she added, they could consider shoveling snow to earn some extra money.

Downtown Smiths Falls, circa 2012. Image: Flickr/Doug Kerr

Quinn said she is aware of the government-funded basic income study that took place in Dauphin, Manitoba in the 1970s. The results of that study showed improvements in areas like poverty reduction and education rates. But, she asked rhetorically, "So what's happening there now? They have no poverty?"

Of course, it's been about 40 years since anybody in Manitoba had a basic income, but nonetheless Quinn said she believes that if a pilot were implemented in Smiths Falls and then taken away, "It sure won't be any better."

City Councillor Lorraine Allen, who was one of the two councillors to vote for Smiths Falls vying to be part of the basic income pilot, disagreed with Quinn.

Allen helps oversee the town's food bank, and she said that she sees every day how people need healthy food to be productive (nutritious meals aren't cheap), and that education isn't enough to lift people out of poverty—you also need opportunity.

"They're going to shop more, buy more groceries, perhaps be more involved in things that they couldn't before"

"After the pilot goes away, you have to hope that the people who are using it have been able to find a new job, create opportunities, have new experiences with their families, and these are positives that are going to move them forward as they go on," Allen said over the phone.

"There are a lot of big question marks, but for me, it's going to give money to a lot of people who really need it, and change their lives," she continued. "And not just their lives—they're going to shop more, buy more groceries, perhaps be more involved in things that they couldn't before. All of these things are wonderful for our little town."

The path forward for Smiths Falls is unclear, but residents have handed a petition to council demanding that the issue be revisited, and Mayor Shawn Pankow has suggested that the issue will be revisited in 2017 in a public forum.

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