The rapid fraying of the economy due to COVID-19, with unemployment rates projected to reach 25 percent and higher, has prompted heightened interest in universal basic income (UBI).
Prior to the pandemic, despite a decline in poverty and a slight reduction in measures of inequality, the drum beats for a basic income were growing stronger. Canada’s business sector promoted the idea, Evelyn Forget has published a vigorous defense of the inevitability of the basic income and Hugh Segal, the Conservative Senator and architect of the Ontario Basic Income Pilot (OBIP) has remained a staunch advocate of a basic income for many years
UBI has always had validity as an anti-poverty measure. It offers a way to deliver social safety net supports with efficiency and dignity compared to the bureaucratic and often overbearing oversight of social assistance.
Recently, proponents have argued that a UBI makes sense as a proactive policy to support those displaced from the workforce due to technological changes such as automation. Others note the debilitating effects of low and uncertain income on physical and mental health. They stress the importance of social and economic determinants of health, and argue a basic income would deliver greater equality through lower medical expenditures by government and individuals. What’s more, some promise that a basic income will release pent-up cultural, entrepreneurial, and intellectual productivity.
With COVID-19, should short-term employment supports such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) simply be rolled into a UBI? Right now, the CERB pays $500 per week for up to 12 weeks, and to receive it, you need to have earned $5,000 from employment or parental benefits in the previous year (and not have received Employment Insurance or quit a job voluntarily). Can the CERB serve as a model for a basic income? Is now the time to implement a basic income for Canada? If so, what needs to be done to create an effective, efficient and equitable basic income?