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Basic Income Would Take Canada One Huge Step Toward Gender Equality

Ontario's pilot project helped one mother set up a new life after leaving her abusive husband.
A stock photo shows a mother and son. A mom participating in Ontario's basic income pilot project says the money helped her set up a new life after leaving her abusive husband.
Giselleflissak via Getty Images
A stock photo shows a mother and son. A mom participating in Ontario's basic income pilot project says the money helped her set up a new life after leaving her abusive husband.

Kate* escaped her husband's physical blows the day he finally left, but his financial manipulation was just beginning.

Days after they separated, he left his job and went on disability, cutting her income through child and spousal support in half. He's defied a court order to pay their mortgage, leaving her to make payments on the house alone while she pours even more money into the legal dispute. Even though she and their children are covered by his insurance, he's refused to send her the reimbursements after she pays for glasses, dental work or medication.

Kate is trained as a registered nurse. She would like to work, but one of her children is seriously ill, requiring daily care at home and regular trips out of town for treatment. When she was married, Kate said she tried to take multiple jobs but her husband wouldn't allow it. She was "100 per cent" dependent on him financially.

About a year after separating from her husband, Kate heard that Ontario would test a basic income program in her region. She applied for the pilot project and was accepted.

"Being able to learn how to pay my own bills has just been so empowering," Kate said. "Because I was told for so long that I couldn't make it on my own."

Ontario's pilot, designed to run for three years but cut short by Premier Doug Ford's government, provides between $17,000 and $24,000 to single people and families living on low incomes. People who are working see their payments reduced by 50 per cent of their income.

A permanent basic income would put gender equality within Canada's reach, said Gwen O'Reilly, the centre coordinator at the Northwestern Ontario Women's Centre. The centre in Thunder Bay helps women leave abusive relationships, navigate family court and the justice system, and recruited applicants for the province's basic income experiment.

Too many women fall through the cracks between existing support programs like Ontario Works, Ontario Disability Support Program and the Child Tax Benefit, O'Reilly told HuffPost Canada.

"Basic income is more durable. You get that money. It's tied to you, it's not tied to your ex-spouse, it's not tied to how many kids you have, it's not dependent on where you live or how you're living," O'Reilly said. "It's an independent payment and that payment makes you independent."

Watch: how basic income boosted this Ontario family business

Basic income has provided a sense of normalcy to Kate and her kids while they heal after more than 15 years of violence.

Kate's been able to keep up with car payments and mortgage payments rather than lose her vehicle and move into subsidized housing. She can buy healthy groceries like granola bars, broccoli and nectarines for her kids and keep them in hockey. For her son who's ill, basic income helps Kate buy special vitamins, medication and equipment that aren't covered by OHIP.

On top of all that, basic income is helping Kate pay for therapy for herself and the family.

"Everybody's healing and we're on the right path," Kate said. "Basic income allowed us to keep that in check."

'Women aren't calling the police anymore'

Kate's story is not uncommon.

Women made up 72 per cent of victims of the nearly 140,000 incidents of family and dating violence reported to police in 2016, Statistics Canada reports. And every night, nearly 3,500 women and their 2,700 children sleep in shelters across the country because their homes are unsafe. More than 500 women and children are turned away every night because shelters are full.

It's impossible to know the scope of crime that isn't reported to police, which O'Reilly says is significant.

"Women aren't calling the police anymore because it is safer to stay in an abusive relationship."

O'Reilly cites several changes in law that have discouraged women from reporting violence to police. Between 1998 and 2000, child welfare officials began to treat children as "at risk" if they witnessed domestic violence, meaning women who report it risk having their children apprehended. A law requiring police to lay charges every time domestic violence is reported came into effect in 1994. When there's a lack of evidence or it's unclear who the aggressor was, this results in "dual charging" where both partners are criminally charged. So women risk being arrested themselves if they call the police on a violent partner.

'Impossible choices'

While many of the barriers to reporting domestic violence are legal, the barriers to leaving are often financial. Violence and poverty spin a dangerous circle in women's lives, with one often leading to the other.

"The financial burden is why I had to stick with the children's father for so long when I should have been gone," Kate said.

Poverty and a lack of affordable housing are the biggest barriers for women trying to leave abusive partners, according to the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses.

"Women who leave abusive situations continue to face impossible choices between violence and hunger, between rent and food, between their health and the well-being of their children," the association wrote in a report.

The financial burden is why I had to stick with the children's father for so long when I should have been gone.Kate*

With basic income, women would have money to rely on.

"You have income that no one else can touch," O'Reilly said. "You also have the kind of freedom and agency that women, frankly, are not used to having, especially women with children and especially marginalized women."

For some women, the means to flee a violent home or move to another city could mean the difference between life and death. Every six days a Canadian woman is murdered by her partner. Indigenous women are six times more likely to be killed, not only in family violence but in all types of crime, than non-Indigenous women.

"Race and poverty and sexism are a deadly combination, clearly," O'Reilly said. "When you're looking at a good part of the population that is even further economically disadvantaged, basic income is more than an equalizer, it's a life raft."

Economic disadvantages

As well as being more likely than men to face violence, Canadian women are more likely to live in poverty and work minimum wage jobs. While 12.7 per cent of adult men live below Canada's low-income measure, 14 per cent of women do, and this number rises to 37 per cent for women who are single mothers.

The Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada recommended a basic income for single moms in 1970. While much has improved for Canadian women since then, the poverty rate for single mothers has slightly worsened. And many of the walls between women and wages still stand.

"A lot of middle class women wind up as low income women after divorce or separation," O'Reilly said. "We have never unpacked the economic trap that marriage and childrearing puts women in."

Canadian women still do over 30 per cent more housework than men do every day, leaving them less time to earn money. They're also three times more likely to work part-time than men, and 19 times more likely to cite "caring for children" as the reason.

Even in full-time jobs, women in Canada only earn about 72 per cent of what their male counterparts earn. That makes their contributions to Employment Insurance and the Canada Pension Plan lower, leaving them worse off when if they are laid off or retire.

Basic income around the world

Studies in Malawi, South Africa and India suggest that unconditional cash transfers give women unprecedented independence, with far-reaching benefits for their health and their communities.

In Malawi, a few dollars a month decreased rates of HIV for girls between 13 and 22. A South African experiment gave parents of girls between 13 and 20 between US$10 and $20 a month and found that those girls faced less violence in their relationships, waited longer to start having sex and had fewer partners.

Perhaps one of the most striking examples of a basic income's ability to empower women comes from India, where an experiment with cash payments in Madhya Pradesh state nearly a decade ago helped transform the entire power dynamic within participating communities.

With funding from the United Nations children's fund (UNICEF), the Self Employed Women's Association — an Indian trade union devoted to helping low-income women — set up a basic income experiment that ran for 18 months, from 2011 to 2012.

A young woman carries a pot filled with water through the village of Shyampura in Tikamgarh, Madhya Pradesh, India, on Feb. 9, 2016.
Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A young woman carries a pot filled with water through the village of Shyampura in Tikamgarh, Madhya Pradesh, India, on Feb. 9, 2016.

But unlike the Ontario basic income trial, which gave a set amount of money to each household, separate payments were made to the men and women in each household. The result was that women gained an unprecedented amount of power in the eight villages and one tribal region where the experiment took place, said Sarath Davala, the researcher who supervised the project.

"Most of the women opened accounts in banks," Davala told HuffPost Canada by phone from India. "They never had a bank account before."

The program empowered women to become small-scale businesspeople. "They withdrew from exploitative wage labour and became entrepreneurs — buying goats and buffaloes and things like that," Davala said.

The success of that program prompted the Indian government to consider the possibility of handing out a basic income only to women, or possibly to women with children. That was one of the options laid out in a 2017 government paper there.

Ultimately, what the Madhya Pradesh experiment showed is that women — along with the disabled, those in the lowest castes of Indian society, and seniors — "benefited most from the entire thing," Davala said.

Ontario recipients left in state of flux

In Ontario, Premier Ford's decision to cancel the basic income pilot two years early has left Kate scrambling for answers. She's looking at her options, which include finding work or having her elderly parents move in to help cover costs. And she's praying that her divorce is finalized before the money from basic income runs out.

"I don't know what kind of money I'm going to have at the end of that," Kate said. "I have a lot of financial unknowns. That's why the basic income was a relief for me."

We're going to do the best we can.Kate*

Her ex is disputing all her claims to assets in court and fighting for access to the children. But Kate hopes to keep her house and is confident that her family will be okay. She dreams of one day going back to school to become a lawyer or medical doctor, so that she can support her kids and help other families like hers.

"We're going to do the best we can," she said. "We're just glad to be free."

With files from Daniel Tencer

*Name has been changed

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 examine the debate over the potential for basic income in a future where precarious work is increasingly common.

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