British Medical Journal and Sudbury health unit suggest universal income actually improves health

·4 min read

The British Medical Journal is arguing that governments that provide a basic universal income (BUI) to citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic, reap the benefit of having less poverty in their countries.Canada had provided a form of the BUI to citizens through the CERB (Canada Emergency Response Benefit) but that program was ended in late September. After Sept. 27, 2020, the program was morphed into other federal income assistance programs that moved the recipient into a modified Employment Insurance program or into other recovery benefit programs such as the Canada Recover Benefit (CRB).

It was also last September that the Sudbury Board of Health endorsed a resolution for Canada to continue the CERB program on the basis that a more equitable income would provide a health benefit for Canadians, and Sudburians, living in poverty.

The BMJ article, which was a commentary, said there was a growing gap between the rich and the poor even before the COVID-19 pandemic crashed some of the world's richest economies and put everyone's health at risk.

Welfare programs were often criticised as being unable to deal with economic change, long before the pandemic.

However, since March 2020, rising inequality and drastic changes to the labour market have forced governments to implement economic initiatives, such as basic income programmes, “that previously would have been politically untenable," said the BMJ article.

The commentary said Spain had given €1015 (£900; $1,200) a month to 850,000 households most in need, and the United States paid $1,200 to all adults earning less than $99,000 annually.

"Evidence from the many pre-existing universal basic income schemes suggests they may be a valuable addition to other initiatives to alleviate poverty and improve health outcomes globally," said the article.

There are other benefits, said the article. One is the fact that people in several countries who have income support were found to have an increased likelihood to seek healthcare when they were seriously ill.

"The first nationwide randomised trial of basic income started in Finland in 2017, where 2,000 unemployed recipients were paid €560 monthly over two years. But most evidence comes from less developed countries,” said the article.

“A review of 24 cash transfer trials in sub-Saharan Africa looked at social determinants of health. All eight studies examining the financial effect found that short-term poverty was reduced. Nine of 11 trials looking at health care use reported a positive effect, including an increased likelihood to seek healthcare when seriously unwell," said the article.

The article also revealed evidence that indicated that people living in poverty were more likely to have mental health issues when compared to those living in higher income circumstances. This was particularly acute for children living in poverty.

In the case of Finland, where support payments were provided to the poor, the recipients reported lower rates of depression, loneliness, sadness and overall mental strain, said the article.

Similar results were found in other countries, where income support was provided.

"A review of studies, focusing on the effects of universal basic income on health, was published in 2020. Twenty seven studies reported health benefits, including reduced mortality, improved adult health, and increased provision of nutrients for low birthweight infants," said the BMJ article.

There have been criticisms of the idea of universal income, a key one being the immense financial cost to the countries that provide income support. The BMJ commentary argued "the actual cost will be less because a shift in the income tax burden means recipients partly finance the scheme themselves".

Another criticism is that BUI does not actually reach those most in need because people on multiple social benefits might lose out. The BMJ article said that short term solutions could be put in place to raise basic income and would be relatively low cost.

There is also the significant concern that providing basic income would convince people to stop going to work, or even seeking work.

"A review of several unconditional cash transfers has found little evidence for this concern, however, with minimal effects on labour supply," said the BMJ article.

The article was authored by Salil B Patel, clinical research fellow, Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences, University of Oxford, and Joel Kariel, PhD candidate, Department of Economics, also at the University of Oxford in the UK.

Len Gillis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Sudbury.com