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Editorial: A worthy idea

  • April 23, 2020

Among the lessons driven home by the COVID-19 crisis is that people and societies are morally bound to care for one another. This care is accomplished in many ways but one gaining wide attention, including encouragement from Pope Francis, is the potential merit of paying everyone a state-guaranteed income.

“Now more than ever, persons, communities and peoples must be put at the centre, united to heal, to care and to share,” wrote Pope Francis.

At a time when millions of workers have lost jobs and retreated into home isolation without a paycheque, “this may be the time to consider a universal basic wage,” he said.

The notion of the state paying a no-questions-asked income to every adult is decades old. Tests have been conducted in some countries, including short-lived Canadian trials in Manitoba and Ontario, but the concept has never taken off. In part, that may be because people without jobs, or people unable to work due to disability or poor health, were too insignificant in number and influence to sway government policy.

That changed almost overnight when COVID-19 thrust millions of people into unemployment. Governments had little choice but to spend billions on relief programs in order to minimize the looming catastrophe of vast numbers of households being unable to buy food, pay rent and keep the lights on.

To their credit, Canada’s federal and provincial governments, for the most part, responded aggressively and invented several on-the-fly relief plans. The initiatives are piecemeal but, given the circumstances, there’s no fault in that. When you add them all up, however, you begin to see what the country might resemble if the state ever decided to pay every adult a guaranteed basic income.

For starters, it would be a country much better equipped to cope with the next world crisis, whether it be another health emergency or a repeat of the global financial crash of 2008-09. More important, it would be a morally just nation in which every Canadian, regardless of their circumstance, lived above the poverty line.

The COVID-19 financial aid packages are temporary, but the lessons they impart should become the foundation of a serious study to determine if a universal basic income is right for Canada. Among many potential benefits would be replacing a patchwork of often inadequate and expensive social-assistance programs with a single program that could virtually eliminate poverty and pave over the cracks that tend to swallow up vulnerable people.

These difficult days should be a call to open up our minds to this new possibility. And in many respects, that is what Ottawa has signalled with its multi-billion-dollar response to the crisis. The state has stepped up to guarantee a livable income for millions of Canadians.

Some day the crisis will pass. It would be a shame if momentum to fully test a universal basic income passed with it.

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