CERB showed us that basic income could work in Canada

Evelyn Forget


As the COVID-19 pandemic persists across Canada, millions of people have lost their jobs or had their work hours cut, exposing the economic insecurity with which Canadian families were already living.

Before the pandemic, half of Canadians were already struggling from paycheque to paycheque with little left over for savings, and household debt was at a record high. Few had enough set aside to pay the rent or put food on the table for even a short period of time. This situation wasn't caused by COVID-19; it reflects changes that have been ongoing for decades. More than a third of the workforce was working in precarious employment -- on contract, in temporary jobs, self-employed or working part-time when they would have preferred full-time work.

The economic shutdown that happened in March of this year revealed the inequality and economic insecurity people were already living with, and it has forced us to acknowledge the limitations of our existing social safety net. People displaced from their usual employment turned to employment insurance and learned that fewer than 40 per cent of them qualified for any support. Those who did qualify received payments too little even to pay the rent.

When the federal government responded by putting in place a much-needed set of emergency support programs, it was discovered that the online system of accounts designed by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) to facilitate income tax collection was capable of working far better than we'd had any reason to believe it could. Using these accounts, the government could deliver emergency support to applicants in a matter of days. It could respond to changing circumstances.

All that was necessary was a directive to administrators not to approach applicants with suspicion, withholding support until every detail of every application was verified and documented. Eligibility issues could be sorted out after people's lives had stabilized and any overpayments could be recovered through the income tax system. That initial level of trust was soon challenged, but it was clear that it wasn't technology that limited the ability to respond rapidly to changing circumstances.

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