A year ago, the word COVID-19, a catchphrase to catch that far more cumbersome mouthful, “coronavirus disease 2019,” didn’t exist in our vocabulary, let alone our lives. Now it has changed everything about everything, including our willingness to talk in new ways about old issues like a universal guaranteed annual income.
The social justice notion that everyone should be entitled to a basket of money to cover their basic needs—“not charity but a right, not bounty but justice,” as the American pamphleteer Thomas Paine put it way back in 1797—is not new. Neither is its rationale. Paine again: “The contrast of affluence and wretchedness continually meeting and offending the eye is like dead and living bodies being chained together.”
That contrast is starker now as income inequality—the yawning chasm between the have-everythings and everyone else—has grown exponentially during our lifetime.
What COVID changed was not our understanding that we need to fix a broken, unequal system, but our recognition that change is possible.
Ottawa responded to the unprecedented economic crisis spawned by a never-before-in-our-lifetime pandemic by creating the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), providing a “taxable benefit of $2,000 every four weeks for up to 28 weeks to eligible workers who stopped working or whose work hours were reduced due to COVID-19.”
Sounds like a (temporary) guaranteed annual income by a more bureaucratic name.
And it worked.
In the month after COVID shuttered and shattered the economy, three million Canadians lost their jobs. Employment Insurance alone couldn’t cope. CERB did. Nearly 6.7 million Canadians applied for the new benefit when the application doors opened in April. By October, when the program began winding down to be replaced by a rejigged Employment Insurance scheme—and before the second wave of the virus began to have its way with our health and economy—the federal government paid out more than $81.6 billion to 8.9 million people.
That wasn’t just good for those who received the benefit; CERB—and other government support programs—not only saved countless businesses from closing for good but will also make our eventual economic recovery possible. (Remember that the next time you whine about taxes!)
CERB proved something else too, says Sheila Regehr, the chair of Basic Income Canada Network, a group that argues in favour of a universal basic income. It proved it could be done. The government, she told the National Observer, “found ways of getting money to people fast, on the ground, at a point when they really needed it.”
Why not make it permanent, and universal, using the tax system to claw back benefits from those who don’t need them?
The fact is we’ve been experimenting with such schemes for decades. The experiments themselves have been successes, but the political will to universalize them has not.
For four years in the 1970s, for example, Ottawa and Manitoba tried what it called “Mincome” in Dauphin, Manitoba, topping up residents’ minimum incomes to $16,000 a year. The results were startling—an 8.5 per cent reduction in hospitalizations, a dramatic increase in numbers of students completing high school. Despite the fears of some, the program didn’t discourage people from continuing to work either.
Unfortunately, politics got in the way and the program was scrapped.
The same thing happened in 2018 in Ontario when then-new premier Doug Ford scrapped another pilot program before it could show results.
Canadians are ahead of the politicians. A June Angus Reid survey showed 59 per cent of Canadians supported the basic concept. In Newfoundland this fall, a private member’s resolution calling on the province to explore how a guaranteed income scheme might work there won unanimous legislature support.
Canadians are finally ready to have the conversation. Thanks, COVID. •