Why COVID-19 Demonstrates Our Need for a Basic Income

What if we changed the paradigm and system to help those most in need beyond this global emergency?

By: Sam Dent —

Canadian society is in a time of mutual understanding and of shared urgency as we are suffering from the effects of COVID-19 and as the number of cases of COVID-19 and deaths continue to rise globally.

Amidst the hardship there is a shared appreciation for workers who are essential to our survival; health workers, grocery store workers, emergency services, people working in our food supply chains, and so many others. There is a shared understanding of the urgency of the illness, the need to flatten the curve and the effect the pandemic is having on our lives and livelihoods.

I believe there is a lot Canadians can learn in terms of how our economic system can — and should — be changed to protect the most vulnerable among us.

We know many people are facing economic hardship as a result of COVID-19. Businesses have been ordered to shut and people have been told to stay home, which has taken a toll. In response, bold measures have been taken by the government. More money than what is normally paid through provincial and federal employment insurance or disability benefits is now available to those without employment through the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

People who have been marginalized by our society often face daily problems affecting their access to income, even without a global health pandemic to contend with. Access to income is affected by many factors including race, gender, sexuality, health, the economic situation we were born into and much more. These are factors individuals don’t control. They are systemic barriers which can make poverty more likely. Why are we treating financial stress caused by these systemic oppressions differently than financial stress caused by COVID-19?

While in this pandemic we’ve had mutual understanding and shared urgency, there is still missing an understanding of the urgency many people experiencing poverty live with when COVID-19 is not a factor. Unfortunately, this means needed action is not taken.

The Canadian social safety net is so short on resources it can take weeks for our employment insurance benefits to come through.

Money is spent on proving and investigating why someone may not need disability benefits or employment insurance benefits. And there is stigmatization; those asking for employment insurance benefits to be paid in a reasonable period of time are asked questions like whether they use food banks or if they will be evicted.

What if we changed the paradigm and system to help those most in need beyond this global emergency?

What if we accepted that those who ask for help really do need it? What if we moved from a perspective of competition to a viewpoint of the abundance we have as a country? If there is one thing that can be learned through this time about governments, it’s that urgency creates political will and access to money, allowing mass mobilization of resources and dramatic policy change.

It’s easy to see how Canada needs a system of universal basic income (UBI). With a UBI every Canadian would be entitled to an amount of money to afford basic costs of living — an amount higher than our current welfare program.

This system would eliminate many of the bureaucratic hassles and create efficiencies. A UBI could replace federal and provincial systems such as disability support programs, welfare programs, employment insurance programs and even CERB with one system. It would also eliminate the negative stigma thrust upon those applying for social security payments because everyone would receive the UBI. And those who earn above a certain income threshold would pay this income supplement back through their taxes.

We’ve seen what is possible for a UBI thanks to the CERB program. While it is not universal, CERB shows the feasibility of such a program and avoids many bureaucratic hassles like the lengthy and tiresome application processes to receive other resources in Canada’s social safety net. Trusting individuals to have legitimate reasons for not being able to get a job is now not unprecedented — CERB has removed the negative stigma of being out of work from those applying for it.

Basic income systems have already been tested in Canada. There was a program tested in Manitoba in the 1970s. A program in Ontario in 2017 was cancelled before completion due to a change in government. However, there were many positive benefits resulting from these programs.

It has been reported that recipients of a basic income move towards financial independence and were relieved from a cycle of economic dependence.

Basic income can lead to improved health, decrease in hospitalizations, and helps people have financial margin to complete their education or create small businesses.

If in times of COVID-19 we do not ask people why they can’t make money, why not offer the same respect to people in regular times? We should offer individuals dignity through realizing the vast majority of Canadians will work if and when they are able to.

This crisis will change everything. There are many things we can learn in terms of how to become a better society.

If the political will and vision is there, we have learned from COVID-19 that resources can be put in place to meet desired goals. Implementing a universal basic income now would move us to a paradigm of seeing a problem and solving it. Let’s use this opportunity to raise us all up in a dignified way. It’s time to institute a universal basic income in Canada.

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