Though the idea was coined by English philosopher Thomas More in his novel Utopia in 1516, several countries — including Canada — are considering how it would work in practice today
Liam Wilkinson, public relations strategist at UBI Works
The pandemic has laid bare economic trends that have been ignored for far too long.
Canadians are increasingly working in precarious, temporary and gig work without benefits or protections. Social mobility is on the decline, making it ever more likely that the rich get richer and the poor stay poor. The cost of living is outpacing wage growth and Canadians are taking on increasing debts to make up the difference. Middle-class jobs are being automated or offshored and the new jobs that are replacing them are overwhelmingly low-income, with a handful of high-tech, high-paying ones for the lucky few.
Canadians are increasingly in extreme precarity and they need more support. When doctors, frontline support workers and mental-health professionals tell us their patients’ biggest problem is lack of money, we need to listen to them.
The federal government administers dozens of targeted income support programs and the provinces hundreds more, yet their abundant gaps and inadequacies result in tens of billions of dollars of poverty-related expenditures in our health care, justice and social services systems. If we’re already spending the money, isn’t it better to try to solve the problem itself rather than merely treating its symptoms?
A universal income support is the foundation for more effective programs and services that address the needs of specific persons; just like universal health care is the foundation for cancer treatment programs and related services.
For too long, our social safety net has let far too many fall through its holes, while those it catches soon discover it’s quite difficult to rebuild a life on a net. It’s time that we create a foundation, one that all Canadians can, in full confidence, build upon and meet the immense challenge we now face. It’s time for a universal basic income.
Armine Yalnizyan, economist and the Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers
Around the world, talk about universal basic income has been brewing since 2016.
In Canada, the coronavirus pandemic and the Canada Emergency Response Benefit renewed thinking about how much income we should guarantee one another. Only 35 per cent of working Canadians received CERB because the majority kept working throughout the pandemic. But suddenly, receiving $2,000 a month wasn’t a pie-in-the-sky idea.
But pandemic economics is different than post-pandemic economics and a basic income isn’t likely in the cards for four reasons. First, who would get it? There are as many definitions of UBI as people who talk about it. It’s not likely to be universal. There already exists an income floor for children and seniors. Seniors would likely be worse off if the working age population were included, as would most people receiving employment insurance benefits. Would infants get it?
Next, what problem does a basic income solve? Poverty reduction? Maybe you want welfare or EI reforms. Technology change? Labour shortages are more concerning than not enough jobs. Administrative simplicity? There’s plenty of room for improvement, but we’ll still need an emergency system of last recourse (welfare). That means pesky rules. Also, how much are we talking about? For how long? Any system of income support needs to address a trinity of design details — benefit level, eligibility and duration. If it’s widespread, it won’t be much. If it’s generous, it won’t reach many — or not for long.
Finally, want a bigger bang for the buck? For half the cost of a UBI, we could add quantity and improve quality of basic public services (pharmacare, dental/vision care, childcare, elder care, housing, transit). Why pay more for a benefit most people would see taxed away? We could pay more and get more, building quality of life and solidarity along the way.