On Thursday, McGill’s student-run consulting firm, JED Consulting published a 2022/23 report about students’ perspectives on Basic Income (BI) policy in Canada, a government program for low-income earners. The organization has conducted research since September 2022, producing an in-depth analysis of the policy debate among over 320 Canadian students. Several of those surveyed belong to McGill’s undergraduate classes.
Founded in 2012, JED Consulting is self-proclaimed as the largest Canadian consulting firm by client size run by a staff of Gen Zers. It uses national student networks and perspectives to help its clients improve their outreach to the younger demographic. The firm leads market research alongside a list of over 50 companies, including large-scale corporations like TELUS, Cineplex, and Bell Media.
JED’s most recent project is (what it believes to be) the first public report on university students’ opinions on Basic Income. The goal was to determine if rhetorical messages like “BI will alleviate poverty” are effective in garnering student support for BI, and if so, which messages are most influential.
The 83-page report contains hundreds of surveys and 25 interviews, revealing a plethora of data. Survey responses originated from Ontario, Quebec, and other areas of Canada, and the 25 interviewees hailed from McGill.
The report defines Basic Income as a “government program where each month, money is sent directly to citizens” (JED 2023) earning less than a specific income. The program guarantees incomes that gradually decrease in tandem with earned income until BI payments are no longer provided.Put simply, BI is a policy that is meant to provide a “baseline of income to people,” explains Co-President Andrei Adam. “It ensures that, as long as you’re an adult, you have a certain amount of income that you can use to purchase essentials regardless of your employment status.”
For example, Quebec’s BI program came into effect in January of this year and is “intended for individuals with a persistent severely limited capacity for employment.” 2023’s basic benefit is $1,211 per month, or $14,532 per year, with adjustments made for both single persons and those with dependents. BI amounts are determined by total yearly income: if someone’s income exceeds the maximum of $14,532, their annual benefit will decrease by $0.55 for each dollar. Other tangible and liquid assets also affect the amount of BI benefits a recipient earns.
Currently, there is no universal Basic Income program in Canada. The government already offers other benefits conditional on employment, like employment insurance, but the debate over implementing it continues.
There is an important distinction between BI and other government assistance. During COVID-19, the government decided to expand a “social safety net,” as Adam put it, with the CERB program. This financial assistance “gave renewed life to the idea of unconditional cash transfers to low-income individuals.” However, CERB did not solely disseminate funds to low-income earners. In fact, some people in low-income groups were not eligible, while some high-income groups were. The program is now closed.
As a student-run firm, JED wanted to explore younger Canadian perceptions of a prospective BI program and what rhetorical messages influence these perceptions. The team states that these factors have been “relatively unexplored” in public reports. “We thought it would be valuable to shine light on the university student perspective of this policy debate,” the team explained.
Without including any facts about BI, researchers presented 8-12 messages politicians might use to focus groups — statements like “BI is the best policy we have to eliminate [poverty]” or “BI will increase government dependency.” Participants were encouraged to think critically about each claim. According to the report, students were not influenced much: 75% of the messages were “met with skepticism” or rejected, and 80% of participants adhered to their original opinions on BI.
JED discovered that poverty reduction is the most commonly perceived benefit of BI. Although rhetoric about this benefit piqued some interest, it still fell short of significantly influencing opinions. There were not any facts to validate BI’s alleviation of poverty. Participants wanted evidence of BI’s success that the rhetoric was not providing.
“This report shows that students are open-minded to the policy, and they’re willing to change their perspective, but they need evidence. They need proof,” Adam states.
Manitoba and Ontario have attempted BI projects in the past, but both provinces cancelled the programs before any research findings could be publicized. Any evidence that may have come out of them was too anecdotal or resulted from contentious research methods.
“Without there having been a fully-funded pilot project in Canada, it’s tough to point to something and say, ‘See, Basic Income’s going to do this,’” explained Adam.
Students are willing to change their stances, but the messages spread by advocates and critics of BI are not inspiring them to do so. For instance, the potential for higher taxes is a common argument used against BI; however, when surveyors asked if tax increases would change anyone’s mind, there was no difference in aggregate support.
The report found that 57% of the surveyees favoured the program, while 12% were against it. The executive summary states that there is a 45% net support for BI among Canadian students.
Despite the percentages, Adam shared that less than 20% of students were “very confident” in their opinion. Around 40% were strongly in favour or strongly against BI, but others struggled to explain their positions.
The report states that opinions are still “malleable,” meaning there’s room for shifting positions among young Canadians. The support/disapproval is there, but current political rhetoric is not going to foster confidence behind those perspectives.
JED concludes that a large-scale pilot project that produces strong evidence could succeed in changing opinions where current messaging does not. The firm’s research shows that a nationwide pilot that demonstrates how BI impacts Canadians could likely encourage individuals to update their positions on the policy. Although JED does not propose whether or not such a project is worthwhile, it states that well-informed results have the potential to shape student perspectives.
“Students are in support of a basic income. They want to learn more about it,” Adam expressed when asked what he wanted McGill students to take away from JED’s report. “A pilot project is something that would better inform them.”
The report can be downloaded from JED’s website.