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Aid programs a model for basic income

  • April 4, 2020

Many of the financial measures being rolled out by governments to help people weather the COVID-19 storm would be unnecessary if Canada had a basic income policy, say basic income advocates.

“At this point, it would be so good if we could have it in the country,” said Sr. Pauline Lally of the Sisters of Providence in Kingston, Ont. “We really need this basic income. I really, really believe that…. It would be one way to end poverty in Canada.”

Lally is a supporter of the Ontario Basic Income Network and a member of Living Wage Kingston. She points to retired Senator Hugh Segal’s recent book, Bootstraps Need Boots: One Tory’s Lonely Fight to End Poverty in Canada, as a guide to how basic income would transform the country.

In a crisis like COVID-19, a basic income could put the brakes on economic death spirals when hundreds of thousands of people suddenly lose their jobs, said Ontario Basic Income Network external relations co-ordinator Barb Boraks.

“If people are financially resilient, then our economy and our society will be resilient,” Boraks said in an e-mail. “This is now evident to everyone. It’s about trickle-up economics, not trickle-down.”

Ottawa has launched a Canada Emergency Response Benefit through the income tax system to help people through the next four months. It provides $2,000 per month for workers who have lost income because of COVID-19. Ottawa also rolled out temporary wage subsidies of 75 per cent to employers covering three months from March 18 to June 18, and has pumped $2 billion into the Canada Child Benefit to help parents through the crisis. 

The Ontario government, which cancelled a basic income pilot program in 2018, has launched a $200 million Social Services Relief Fund that includes $148 million to support shelters, food banks, charities and non-profits which serve vulnerable people.

There’s also an emergency assistance program administered under the basic provincial welfare program known as Ontario Works.

Add it all up and Lally wonders whether all the government relief programs together might constitute a basic income.

“It’s kind of what they’re doing. They’re just not calling it that,” she said.

But as a basic income experiment launched in the midst of a crisis, without an overarching design, it’s less than ideal, said Boraks.

“How the funds are delivered is key,” she said. “If through GST/tax/child benefit, then funds are delivered based on need. If they are delivered through the EI (employment insurance) system, then the funds could still be dependent on requirements and categories — even if loosened substantially. Which could mean that many who need it most (precarious workers, cash for work, disabled, long-term unemployed) could fall through the cracks.”

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