Followed by poverty, Peterborough man finds hopeful cause in Basic Income

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Jason Hartwick

Roderick Benns

When he was a young man, just leaving high school, Jason Hartwick always pictured himself in front of a classroom. He saw himself as a high school teacher, helping to inspire young people and to guide them along their lives’ paths.

The thing is, Hartwick didn’t have anyone to guide him.

He grew up in poverty, bounced around from town to town across a wide swath of southern Ontario, dependent on where his single mom could find work and affordable housing.

From Bowmanville, where they lived on Mother’s allowance payments, to Grasshill, Pefferlaw, Sutton, Sundridge, Burk’s Falls, South River, Beaverton, Peterborough and Argyle, Hartwick figured out they had moved 32 times before he turned 21.

Now 38 and living in Peterborough, he says he knows that “poverty was definitely a barrier” when he was growing up with his six siblings. When he thinks about his early dream of being a high school teacher, Hartwick remembers how he felt as reality set in.

“I knew there would be no way for me to afford it and OSAP (Ontario Student Assistance Program) always seemed out of reach,” he says.

There is a mindset among those who live in poverty, he says, that college or university is for those who have money already. More importantly, there’s a feeling that if “we’re struggling already, the risk of adding more debt is too high,” he explains.

Without the benefit of an education, Hartwick had a checkered job history. He worked on many farms while growing up.

When he was 18 he worked in a factory until he got injured, which ended in a “mess” that ended up with him quitting.

Hartwick became a basement sealer for a year in Peterborough, then a mover in London. He worked at call centres for years and also spent time as a construction framer.

For most of the last nine years, though, he has been a stay-at-home father who has also begun doing advocacy by serving as co-chair of the Basic Income Peterborough Network. He heard about the concept behind Basic Income when he was working to bring a program called Blessings in a Backpack to Peterborough about four years ago.

“I immediately saw the many advantages to such a program and I have been advocating ever since,” he says.

A Basic Income ensures everyone an income sufficient to meet basic needs, regardless of one’s work status. In Canada, the most common form of basic income discussed is a ‘top up’ approach.

Retired Senator Hugh Segal’s report on a minimum income for Ontario was released recently, which will see Ontario set up a multi-year pilot to measure its effectiveness starting in April, 2017. Segal recommended a monthly payment of at least $1,320 for a single person which is about 75 per cent of the province’s poverty line. For those with disabilities, Segal suggests a top-up of $500 more per month.

Although Hartwick is still living in poverty, it’s been “one of the easier times in my life.” It helps that he’s married and his wife has a job as a Personal Support Worker.

They have four children, with an income of about $3,000 per month. Once you factor monthly expenses in, there’s not a lot left over though, according to Hartwick. The kids are 16, 8, 6, and two and he admits that he and his wife both smoke.

“Depression is the only mental illness that can actually be caused by poverty,” Hartwick says. “When you are depressed, you will try anything to relieve the figurative weight that it puts on you, and smoking definitely creates a weird sort of euphoria.”

“Smoking is not just physiologically addicting, it is also emotionally and habitually addicting.”

Hartwick says if a Basic Income were available tomorrow, the family would be able to afford childcare which in turn would allow him to find work.

“And then we would soon not need it anymore,” he says.

He notes this is the whole idea of a basic income, giving people a chance to bounce into other opportunities.

Former Peterborough resident, Roderick Benns, spent nearly two years interviewing prominent leaders and academics across Canada on the merits of a basic income guarantee, hoping to help put the policy on the radar of politicians across the country. He turned his research into a book entitled Basic Income:How a Canadian Movement Could Change the World.

This article originally appeared in Peterborough This Week.

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About Author

Roderick Benns is the publisher of the Precarious Work Chronicle and is the author of 'Basic Income: How a Canadian Movement Could Change the World.' An award-winning author and journalist, Roderick has interviewed former Prime Ministers of Canada, Senators, and Mayors across Canada. He also wrote and published a series of books for youth about Canada's Prime Ministers as teens.

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