Humans of Basic Income

Interview with Jessie Golem

by Sara Bizarro

Basic Income is a radically different and yet elegantly simple notion that has been around for decades: all citizens should have an income and be allowed to maintain their dignity, simply because they are citizens in a society that is prospering. In social policy terms, this idea can be put into action by giving unconditional cash payments to citizens. In the 60s and 70s, there were several long-term Basic Income policy experiments in the USA and Canada. The goal of these experiments at the time was to see if giving people money would be a disincentive to workforce participation. In the end, there was only a very small reduction of work participation among the subjects. In the USA women worked fewer hours per week, an understandable consequence is given that there were on average 4 children per family in the study group. Young men in Canada reduced their work participation, but high school completion rate increased, with stipends enabling the pursuit of higher levels of education. Furthermore, there was an increase in divorce rates, which was the main motivator to take BasicIncome off the table at the time, but looking back seems like it was not such a bad result, Basic Income was shown to empowered women in difficult situations to be able to exit those situations.

BasicIncome has recently returned to vogue, and Canada was, until recently, conducting an experiment in the province of Ontario, led by the of the Liberal government. It was a pilot program guaranteeing an income to 4000recipients in the region an and was supposed to last three years, but it was abruptly canceled in July 31st 2018, by the newly elected Ford administration. There have been many reactions to the cancellationof this pilot program, including a class action suit filed by fourLindsey residents, represented by lawyer Mike Perry. The Basic Incomerecipients in this class action are arguing that they “made plans to improvetheir lives when they signed up for the pilot in April last year, providing thegovernment with detailed personal information to be approved and expecting thepilot to run its three-year term.” It also seems like a breach of basic socialresearch ethics and complaints have been filed to Veritas, the company the previous government hired to ensure ethical standards are metin the conduct of research involving human beings.

On the aftermath of the cancelation, and as a reaction to it, photographer JessieGolem, also a recipient in the experiment, started a portrait series named Humans of Basic Income, depicting photos of Basic Income recipients displaying placards with their stories handwritten on them. We spoke to Jessie about her experience as a recipient of the Ontario Basic Income trial and about her own experience as a recipient and her perspective on the Basic Income pilot that gave rise to her portrait series.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background?

I grew up in the small town of Hanover, Ontario. I’m quite lucky and privileged that I’m actually quite close with my family and had a stable childhood. My parents are still together, and I grew up in the same house and attended the same elementary school and high school. We were not rich, but we were always provided for, and my childhood was happy, stable and peaceful. I went to school at University of Waterloo, majoring in Religious Studies. I was also quite religious at the time and lived at a bible college in Kitchener, but I don’t consider myself religious anymore, and actually have an article published on the Huffington Post on the reasons behind that decision. Later, I moved to Hamilton, and while in Hamilton I went to school at George Brown College in the Assaulted Women’s and Children’s Counselling and Advocacy program. I explored a number of careers, including youth pastor, piano teacher (I’m a classical pianist) and social worker, but I currently work as the Operations Manager at Photographers Without Borders, and hoping to expand my career as a photographer, storyteller, and writer.

What was your work life like before Basic Income?

I’ve had numerous jobs in my life. I have worked as a cleaning lady, I’ve worked in retail, I’ve ran kids programs and day camps and worked as a dog walker. I’ve always worked/volunteered for not-for-profits in different capacities my entire adult life. Prior to receiving Basic Income I was working as a dog walker in the mornings/afternoons, teaching piano in the evenings, and in the time in between, working at Photographers Without Borders, and working to book photography projects and grow my own freelance photography business. I had no free time. I often wouldn’t be able to get home to cook myself dinner, and I’d often find myself up until late in the night working on projects and applications.

What is Photographers Without Borders?

Photographers Without Borders (PWB) is an international non-profit that amplifies the stories of grassroots organizations all over the world by sending volunteer photographers and videographers to document the work they are doing. The organization is able to receive this footage to build their own capacity, while PWB also brings awareness to these issues through a robust social media, a print magazine and online magazine, and a video series. I have volunteered at PWB for two years, and we are on the brink of realizing some tremendous growth which would expand our capacity as an organization, and potentially offer paid positions to staff. BI gave me the time to devote to PWB full-time in order to realize that vision. Losing BI means I will have to reduce my capacity at PWB.

How did your plans get foiled by the cancelation?

I had plans to work full-time at pursuing photography and building my business to a point where it’s self-sustaining, as well as develop my capacity at PWB and help to grow the organization. I will now have to return to having multiple jobs.

Even though it was canceled, do you think that there were positive consequences for you personally from having participated in the program?

Yes. I have now experienced what living and pursuing photography full-time feels like, and I’m very excited about this life, and don’t want to return. I have used the cancellation to pursue a portrait series, and I believe this experience has made me bolder, and less afraid of taking risks in order to succeed. I threw myself into the portrait project without a lot of thought, andI’m lucky for all the miracles along the way that has kept this project alive. I’m less afraid of the consequences, and more passionate about amplifying the stories of the people I have met on this journey, who have become friends.

What do you say to critics who accuse you and others in the project of being “parasites”?

I believe this kind of dehumanizing language is extremely dangerous and opens up the opportunity for violence. With language such as “parasite” it strips a person of their humanity, saying they are only human if they contribute to the economy financially. If they are unable to do so, they aren’t human, they are parasites. In history, when dehumanizing language is used against a group of people, it allows for the justification of violence, because this person is seen as “the other” or “less than human” and therefore less of a person than the one holding the prejudice, and this allows for violence. It’s this dehumanizing language that has, historically, caused genocide and holocausts. Furthermore, this was a pilot project, and even those opposed to BI would benefit from the results of the project, so they can use the facts and data obtained to justify their opposition. And 70%of the people on the pilot project had/have jobs, myself included. Anyone who wasn’t working wasn’t doing so because they were lazy but do to physical and mental disabilities that prevented them from working.

Do you think a pilot that included more income levels and a more gradual take back rate could avoid this accusation?

I’m not sure. I think the stigma against people in poverty is only really growing, especially in this area where political views between the left and right are becoming so far divided. You still see name-calling and dehumanizing language used to describe people of opposing political views, and you see this from both liberal and conservative-minded people. It would be interesting to see what a pilot focused on a wider range of income could do and how it would affect people. I did like that Ontario focused on low-income people, because it was a study attempting to address and come up with a solution to a social service system in Ontario that I now know is deeply broken, and keeps people in poverty. It would be interesting to see a pilot focused on a wider range of incomes, however. A multi-faceted, nuanced approach would be really great to see, where different income levels in different areas, and different types ofpilots are examined. We do see this right now – there are Basic Income studiescurrently taking place in small communities and pockets all over the world.

What do you think is the main purpose of the pilots?

There are so many purposes for the pilots, but one of the bigger ones I see is that we need to examine the future of economics in our society, as the rise of AIand technology changes the future of work, and in many cases, increasingly replaces the need for human work. This is an economic change as big as the Industrial Revolution that will be realized in our lifetimes. Humans don’t need to work in a factory if a robot is doing the work, online banking has replaced the need for bank tellers, self-serve check-outs in grocery stores and kiosks in fast food restaurants have replaced cashiers, thus many industries which were so heavily reliant on human work are increasingly no longer needing humans. The question of how one works, and how one derives an income and contributes to the economy is a tremendous question to ask – it is imagining a new world. Increasingly, the issue of climate change and globalization will also affect the future of economics. A Universal Basic Income is just one idea, but it’s worth examining. Right now we are only in the stages of speculation, but research and pilot projects would be able to drive the conversation forward, answering important questions while unearthing new ones. The pilots can absolutely measure the cost benefits – how much money is saved in healthcare costs if people have access to good healthy food and don’t develop long-term health problems? What is the cost benefit if a person is avoiding committing crimes and the ensuing consequences because they have all of their basic needs taken care of? And I think it’s important to analyze different models of Basic Income because the economic needs of communities all over the world are vastly different from one another. I think what a Basic IncomeProgram in Ontario looks like can’t and shouldn’t look like what a Basic Income Program would look like in another country, or even in another part of Canada. Different areas have different economic needs, which is why I’m glad to see so many projects taking place all over the world that are trying out different models of Universal Basic Income.

In your opinion, was the pilot working in getting people to improve their situations, including your own experience?

Having a Basic Income improved my life. Everyone I’ve talked to were improving their lives, and these improvements were small, but noteworthy steps to living better lives out of poverty – lives with dignity. Small things like the ability to afford to buy new clothes, or buy healthier food at a nicer grocery store, or be able to pay bills on time. The amount was small – if someone wanted to use Basic Income as a disincentive to work, they could, however, they would not be living a nice life. It was enough to get a leg up out of poverty – move into safer housing, get a better job, and live better lives, contributing to the economy. The cost of poverty on a person’s mental wellbeing is staggering – the amount of mental energy it takes to survive will actually reduce a person’s IQ. If all their mental energy is concerned with how they will pay the next bills, where they will find food, how they will pay for health care, etc. there is no time for one to dream of bigger pursuits. I saw Basic Income buying people that precious time. To give that to someone, and then take it away with no warning, and little information, and no reason based in fact, is simply reprehensible.


The Basic Income movement is still going strong, despite the Ontario Pilot’s cancelation. In Canada, activists are fighting to take the pilot to a Federal level, and to finish the research that was started. At the time of the cancelation, there was no data analysed by the pilot, all we have are the stories of the recipients as told in Jessie’s portrait series and on a website called Basic Income Voices. These stories are powerful and provide a window into how Basic Income can bear positive, life-changing benefits for its beneficiaries. The future is here and the time to explore policy solutions is now.

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