COVID-19 presents lessons in how a guaranteed basic income program could work

Posted on May 4, 2020 in Social Security Debates

Source: — Authors: , – Opinion
Art Eggleton and Hugh Segal

This can be designed to help only those who need a top-up to maintain a very basic standard of living

Fifty members of the Senate of Canada, almost half the chamber, are calling for a basic income plan to ensure that, in these challenging times, no one goes without the means to acquire the necessities of life. This is not a new endeavour for Canadian senators. Fifty years ago, Sen. David Croll called for an overhaul of our social safety net, saying: “We are pouring billions of dollars every year into a social welfare system that merely treats the symptoms of poverty, but leaves the disease itself untouched.” True then, true today. From his endeavours came a basic income program for senior citizens. The authors of this article have also worked on advancing the development of a new and simplified income security framework to replace the old broken systems.

Why? Because we still have millions of Canadians living in poverty; half of them have jobs but still can’t make ends meet with low wages. Millions don’t have decent affordable housing; thousands are homeless. Many can’t afford sufficient and nourishing food, and others can’t afford to buy necessary medicines. A wide gap in wealth and income levels has evolved in the past three decades. And our labour market is changing with accelerated automation and more precarious employment: low-paying, part-time, short-term jobs, little or no benefits. Half the population has been living paycheque to paycheque, struggling to make ends meet, experiencing stress and anxiety.

And now comes COVID-19 to make matters worse. Governments in this country have been working cooperatively, admirably, and with speed to help Canadians through this period. However, as Prime Minister  Justin Trudeau has admitted, there are gaps in these measures, and many Canadians are falling through them. That is bound to happen, and understandable, when a patchwork of programs with different eligibility rules are quickly designed and implemented.

The Canada Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB) is one program that comes close to being a basic income measure. But there are still people falling through the cracks who can’t provide sufficiently for the necessities of life: food, medicines and housing for themselves and their families. For example, people on social assistance or disability allowances who can’t work and haven’t been able to work recently are not eligible for CERB. And yet they are struggling because social assistance and disability allowances are far below any poverty line measurement, and formally discourage work.

When Trudeau was asked about Universal Basic Income – or UBI – at one of his daily press conferences, he responded by saying the government was targeting those in need and was not prepared to support a payout to everyone of all income levels, rich and poor alike. We agree. Basic income can be designed to target only those who need a top-up to provide for and maintain a very basic standard of living. And it can be implemented with speed, simplicity and efficiency by the keepers of our tax files, the Canada Revenue Agency.

When the CERB program, including gap-filling, hopefully, comes to an end it should provide many “lessons learned” that can help in the design of a new permanent income security program going forward, which would fortify our social safety net for the new normal and against future pandemics.

Fifty members of the present Senate (from the left, right and centre) have written to the government recommending that transition planning work be done now on building this rational next step based on liquidity, productivity and inclusive economic recovery. Their proposal is an opportunity for Canada’s governments to work together once the pandemic has settled down, and to shape an efficient, effective and equitable joint approach to poverty abatement nation-wide.

Art Eggleton is a former mayor of Toronto, and Senator from Ontario who chaired the Science,Technology and Social Affairs standing Committee of the Canadian Senate. Hugh Segal is Mathews Fellow for Global Public Policy  at Queen’s University ,and a former Vice-Chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Urban Poverty in the Senate of Canada.

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