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Cobe Nelson, 7, and his mother, Nikki Gray, at their townhouse in Victoria. Ms. Gray is hoping the government will help low-income households struggling to make ends meet. (ARNOLD LIM FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL/ARNOLD LIM FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Cobe Nelson, 7, and his mother, Nikki Gray, at their townhouse in Victoria. Ms. Gray is hoping the government will help low-income households struggling to make ends meet. (ARNOLD LIM FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL/ARNOLD LIM FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)


To end poverty, guarantee everyone in Canada $20,000 a year. But are you willing to trust the poor? Add to ...

Nicole Gray, a 24-year-old single mother living in Victoria, feels like a "beggar" every time she has to go into a government office and ask for help to pay her bills.

She has finished her diploma to be an office medical assistant despite having gotten pregnant as a teenager. But job losses and the difficulty of raising her son, now 7, on her own have made her income unpredictable. Meanwhile, she says, the system is suspicious of every request and doubts every word.

There are hundreds of rules. She has been sent away because she was missing one document. She has had to justify a no-contact order against her son's father and had a caseworker scrutinize every detail of her bank account. Every interrogation "makes you feel very low to the ground," she says. And the worst, she says, is that you learn quickly "that you can't count on anything."

But what if we gave Ms. Gray and other poor Canadians something to count on: cash directly in their pockets, with no conditions, trusting people to do what's right for them? It's a bold idea, and it runs counter to the paternal approach to poverty that polices what is done with "our" money and tries to strong-arm the poor into better lives.

That approach has had limited success: The wage gap continues to grow, and one in 10 Canadians still struggles below the low-income line.

The idea of giving money to the poor without strings is not new. It melds altruism and libertarianism, saying both that the best way to fight poverty is to put cash in poor people's pockets and that people can make their own choices better than bureaucrats can. As a result, it can find support in theory from both left and right.

It has been tested with success in other countries, and now it has re-entered the Canadian political conversation.

This week, a House of Commons committee on poverty released a report proposing a guaranteed basic income for Canadians with disabilities, on the model already available to seniors. The Senate released a similar report this spring calling for a study of how it would work for all low-income Canadians.

In Quebec, a government task force went further, recommending a minimum guaranteed income starting at $12,000 for everyone in the province.

Economists continue to bounce the idea around. Two years ago, Canadian researchers started their own chapter of the Basic Income Earth Network (a group founded in Belgium in 1986) to co-ordinate an ongoing discussion. Some say it might actually accomplish what political rhetoric has been promising for years: the eradication of poverty.

An international success story

In the past decade, the number of poor households in the world receiving direct financial transfers has grown rapidly. European nations such as France and Austria, which spend slightly less than one-fifth of their gross domestic products on cash transfers to low-income citizens, have had far more success reducing poverty than Canada has.

But the shift has largely been led by developing nations. These programs - now in at least 45 countries, helping 110 million families - range from social pensions and education stipends in South Africa to Brazil's Bosla Familia guaranteed grant to families. Some come with conditions, such as sending children to school or the doctor, but many do not. Studies have shown significant benefits, in particular that kids get healthier.

What's more, argues Joseph Hanlon, a development scholar and co-author of a recent book called Just Give Money to the Poor, research has not proved conditions are needed. In general, people spend the money on food and their children, and invest a portion of what remains toward improving their incomes. In a region in Namibia with an unconditional basic income grant, child malnutrition dropped from 42 per cent to 10, and school dropouts dropped to almost zero.

In a controlled study conducted by the World Bank, researchers found that giving cash transfers to families in Malawi increased school attendance of girls and young women by the same amount whether or not a condition was attached.

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