B.C. explores universal basic income for post-pandemic world

B.C. explores universal basic income for post-pandemic world

VICTORIA — Mass unemployment and the shutdown of entire sectors of B.C.’s economy due to COVID-19 has put a renewed interest on the idea of a government-supplied basic income, says the province’s social development minister.

Shane Simpson said it’s particularly opportune that a panel of three academics hired by the province in 2018 to study the issue is preparing to deliver its interim report this summer, while B.C. is slowly reopening its economy from the coronavirus. The pandemic experience will be included in the study on basic income and add a new context to the report, said Simpson.

“I think it’s pretty timely to be doing this now,” Simpson said Tuesday. “I spoke to (the panel members) when COVID happened. I did go back and say obviously this changes the look somewhat. And they said they have no problem fitting that in, to say, ‘Let’s look at it based on what we’re learning coming out of COVID.’ So that will be part of the conversation on what they deal with. They’ll reflect on what we’ve learned and are going through right now.” 

The idea of a basic income is for government to provide a minimum living stipend — either in the form of a universal payment to everyone or money targeted to specific groups. It’s different than current social-assistance programs, because it doesn’t necessarily require a person to be unemployed or come with rules on how the money should be spent.Advocates say basic income provides a guaranteed financial stability that would allow governments to reduce costs for social assistance, poverty, policing, health care, child welfare and other services. But critics have argued against the enormous cost of such a program — likely to be billions in B.C. alone — and how it could provide money to some people who don’t need it.

An unprecedented number of people have turned to the provincial and federal governments for financial help to pay their bills since COVID-19 shut down much of the economy almost 10 weeks ago. But they must navigate a maze of programs from Victoria and Ottawa, with differing deadlines, application criteria, eligibility and payment amounts.For example, the one-time, $1,000 B.C. emergency benefit is tax-free, while the $2,000 monthly federal emergency benefit is taxable — and both pay out at different times. A basic income, co-ordinated between governments, could be a simpler and more efficient program in future crises.

Simpson said the large number of people who need government help due to COVID-19 may change the tone of the conversation on improving the social safety net.“I think lots of people who said, ‘I just want government to stay out of my hair,’ ” and now all of a sudden it is, ‘I want government to be there because I need help to be able to get by and support my family,’ ” said Simpson. “So, yeah, I think it has elevated the role of what people want from government. When things get tough, we want government to be there.”

The NDP agreed to study basic income as a condition of its power-sharing deal with the Greens after the 2017 election.

“It’s ultimately a public health approach to people in providing economic support, in that it says people need a basic level of security in order to be healthy and well,” said Green MLA Sonia Furstenau.Furstenau said no one is questioning the cost to governments for financial assistance during the COVID-19 crisis, because society has deemed people’s well-being as worth it no matter the expense. The same should apply to basic income, she said.

“We are in the first major crisis of the 21st century — not including climate change — and it has already opened conversations up in ways that weren’t possible before,” said Furstenau.

Canada already has some types of basic income payments, including old age security and guaranteed income supplements for seniors. You could argue the $2,000 monthly federal emergency payment is also a form of basic income or at least an enhanced EI, said Marc Lee, a senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.The key going forward will be to figure out whether a basic income replaces some existing federal and provincial support programs, or supplements them, and how that changes the landscape of the overall social safety net, said Lee.

“I generally like the idea, but the devil is in the details with a lot of it,” he said. “There’s different flavours of basic income, and different philosophical approaches behind it.”

A basic income that pays $18,000 annually — or $1,500 a month — to all British Columbians would cost around $52 billion, said Lee, who obtained the figure from a public presentation recently delivered by one of the experts on the government panel. That’s almost as much as B.C.’s entire annual budget of $60 billion. By comparison, B.C.’s poverty reduction advocates have estimated it would cost about $1 billion to increase existing income assistance and disability amounts above the poverty line, said Lee.Furstenau said upfront costs are only one part of the equation, and that the calculation is different when measured against improving health and well-being.

“You’d want to look at what costs are removed by approaching a basic income model but also what other costs are diminished,” she said.

“The costs of poverty are significant in society, everything from health care to criminal justice, MCFD (Ministry of Children and Family Development) and the cost of putting children into foster care largely as a result of poverty. The costs of poverty to government alone are estimated to be $2 billion-to-3 billion a year, but costs to society $8-billion-to-$9 billion.”



You may also be interested in...