Basic Income Could Reduce Food Insecurity and Boost Health

Academic research shows that basic income improves health

It’s no news when we say that earning one’s living has become the toughest challenge people deal with. Finding a job and being paid enough to support all of your necessities are the main reasons for worry for a large number of people. Working means, first of all, making sure you get food since eating is an essential act of survival. It seems rather basic and it is so yet the implications go beyond simple biology and reach social, political, emotional, and cultural levels.

Basic income and food insecurity are tightly related. The two will further affect one’s health. If you don’t have enough money to pay for your food and you don’t eat, you will, firstly, not meet your nutritional needs and, secondly, your health will be affected by the insecurity regarding your food and the anxiety that comes along with it.

Now, throughout time people, from ordinary ones to those with a higher financial power, have tried to help those who don’t have a basic income through various social programs, forms and projects such as food banks. Things have now taken a new turn, though, and advanced projects regarding a basic income guarantee are now drawing attention in certain parts of the world. Ontario, for instance, plans to roll out such a project in order to test whether a basic income could lead to better outcomes for those who receive it and draw lower costs for government than the current social programs. Two key measures of this project regard health and healthcare costs and according to Hugh Segal, former senator and current master of Massey College, these two aspects are tightly related to the problem of food insecurity.

Hugh names food insecurity, which grows at a rapid speed or is constant in certain parts of the world, as an outcome to look at. Low income increases the probability of food insecurity and the greater the food insecurity, the higher its toxic effects on health. According to Valerie Tarasuk, professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, when a person lives with extreme food insecurity, that person “burns up well over double the health-care dollars of the rest of us”. She underlines the tight connection between basic income, food insecurity and health-care spending.

How can food insecurity affect one’s health?

Food insecurity will affect one’s mental and physical health. The anxiety and worry that come along with it will eventually affect one’s health. Tarasuk says that “adults with chronic diseases like diabetes or HIV are less able to manage their conditions. They’re more prone to complications and negative outcomes, and they have higher mortality rates”. Plus, she says that food insecurity affects many children in Canada, more precisely 1 in 6 children, and this translates into a higher risk of getting asthma, developing depression and other diseases.

How can a basic income reduce food insecurity?

Tarasuk explains that a basic income will keep the recipients over a certain income level which will then limit food insecurity. She adds that a basic income will lead to major changes in food insecurity in a short period of time. For instance, in Newfoundland and Labrador, the social assistance recipients who received the income increase support reduced their food insecurity by almost half over five years. Tarasuk concludes that “a secure and decent income can largely cut off food insecurity to a degree that increases in minimum wage, subsidized housing or small increases to welfare payments don’t do.”

Are there any arguments against the basic income guarantee project?

Unfortunately, despite the positive thinking and intentions behind such a project, there are arguments against turning it into reality.  When it comes to Ontario in particular, Tarasuk says that there isn’t enough money for such a project and that it will encourage some people not to work.

Food insecurity clearly affects the health costs. Therefore, a basic income guarantee project such as the one mentioned above would use the money to ensure a basic income rather than cover the health care costs that food insecurity directly leads to. Tarasuk highlights the necessity of gathering more data before knowing exactly how the basic income could reduce the administrative social assistance and health care costs, how would that affect the performance of kids in school, and what the other implications of such a project are.

Regarding the other possible negative effect of the basic income guarantee project, that is the disincentive for work, Tarasuk says that’s debatable since more than half of families that live with food insecurity in Canada work. The problem is related to the security and quality of their job and income.

Final thoughts on basic income and food insecurity

The problem of poverty and food insecurity is not limited to a country or to a single province. Unfortunately, it is spread all over the world. Luckily, such initiatives could help eliminate food insecurity and other social determinants of stress, poor health, suffering and even premature death.

The basic income guarantee project has drawn attention and support in Canada from health professionals to elected officials, ordinary people, and non-governmental organizations. Naomi Klein, a well-known author, and activist see the implementation of such a project as the most important step in global climate change, thinking of it as of a great opportunity to create a sense of collectivity that will then enable people to work together and take care of this public health issue.

Elaine Power, an associate professor in the School of Kinesiology & Health Studies at Queen’s University, says that a basic income guarantee would help us to reduce poverty and food insecurity, facilitate action on global climate change, and would give us “a solid collective footing to work together again, to find new ways to live together and more sustainably on the planet, and reimagine our collective future.”

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