The pandemic has brought into sharp relief just how many holes exist in the so-called social safety net

Many of the millions of Canadians who received support from the Canada Emergency Response Benefit during the pandemic are nervously eyeing Oct. 3. What happens when CERB ends?

Last Monday, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released an analysis that suggests 2.9 million Canadians will have their income lost or cut in the transition from CERB’s $2000 per month benefit to Employment Insurance, unless changes are made to the program.

At the beginning of August, 4.7 million Canadians were receiving CERB. Of that number, 1.4 million are eligible for EI under the current rules, and many would receive less than $500 per week. Low-wage earners and those working in already pandemic-rattled sectors such as hospitality, arts, retail and airlines will be most affected; as well, 57 per cent of CERB recipients at risk of being ineligible for EI are women.

The pandemic has brought into sharp relief just how many holes exist in the so-called social safety net — holes large enough for entire population segments to disappear through. CERB, with its fast rollout, user-friendliness and inclusive eligibility, has effectively illustrated that EI is one of those holes. Many Canadians simply cannot access it.

As the program stands now, EI offers little support to gig-economy workers, self-employed individuals, part-time workers or parents who have to stop working due to lack of child care.

Its eligibility requirements don’t reflect the realities of the modern worker, and the program is delivered by an antiquated technology system.

But bringing EI into this century is only a start. What’s been made clear is that short-term solutions will not work for long-term problems, and COVID-19 shows every indication of being a long-term problem. The “new normal” we’re in the process of building should include a comprehensive measure such as a Universal Basic Income strategy, which might replace the current patchwork, including the Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security, EI and child tax benefits, with an actual social safety net accessible to all Canadians.

The looming end of CERB has renewed debates about universal basic income, an old idea that has taken a new foothold in the COVID-19 era.

Dauphin was the site of the great ‘”Mincome” experiment in the 1970s; health economist Evelyn Forget analyzed its data and published a 2011 paper titled “The Town With No Poverty,” concluding that “a relatively modest GAI (Guaranteed Annual Income) can improve population health, suggesting significant health system savings.”

Among the old idea’s new champions is Winnipeg Centre NDP MP Leah Gazan, who has tabled a motion in the House of Commons to convert CERB into a permanent guaranteed liveable basic income.

There’s obviously much to figure out in terms of what basic income would look like and how it would be funded. But the idea is worthy of more than just idle, pandemic-related conversation.

Before COVID-19, the nature of work was already changing as a result of automation and the rise of the gig economy.

Housing has become increasingly precarious and unaffordable. Families are changing, with both parents often working outside the home — sometimes in multiple jobs — trying to make ends meet, often while dealing with inadequate child care. The pandemic has served as a spotlight that brought these issues out of darkened corners and into the public discourse.

The architects of our new normal have the opportunity to create a social safety net that won’t need a CERB when the next crisis hits.

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