Trudeau just green lit a 'basic income' for Canadians

Roderick Benns

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has just announced a basic income for Canadians this past week. Well, he didn’t call it that, and yet that’s exactly what happened – at least temporarily.

A basic income ensures everyone an income sufficient to meet basic needs and live with dignity, regardless of one’s work status.

Basic income, in Canada, would look similar to the Canada Child Benefit.

That is, as wages increase the benefit declines, but it declines progressively – not dollar for dollar.

In effect, children already get a basic income in Canada. So do seniors, in the form of old age security (OAS) and a guaranteed income supplement (GIS).

While there was $27 billion in direct support from the federal government for individuals in the wake of this COVID-19 pandemic, it was the new emergency care benefit of $10 billion that is garnering the most interest. This plan will provide income support to workers who must stay home and who don’t have access to paid sick leave – the thousands of part time and precarious workers who would especially have been devastated by the virus, had this package not been put in place.

The prime minister says that the money is to help pay for rent and groceries, to ensure Canadians stay healthy, and to stabilize the economy.

“No matter who you are or what you do, this is a time where you should be focused on your health, and that of your neighbors’, not whether you’re going to lose your job, not whether you’re going to run out of money for things like groceries and medication,” he said.

Trudeau’s linkage of health and well-being along with income stability is particularly refreshing. In doing so, the PM is acknowledging the decades of work done by Dr. Dennis Raphael of York University, and others, who have long argued that the living conditions that we experience is directly linked to our health outcomes.

If Trudeau can see how health and income connects in times of crisis, perhaps he can yet acknowledge that poverty is a slow crisis?

As Raphael has noted, Statistics Canada shows that “Canadian men in the lowest 20 per cent of the income distribution are 67 per cent more likely to die in any given year than the wealthiest 20 per cent. For women, the figure is 52 per cent more likely.”

The Ontario Basic Income Pilot was initiated by the Ontario government in 2017 in three areas – Hamilton region, Thunder Bay area, and Lindsay. About four thousand people were involved, with nearly 2,000 of them in Lindsay. It was set to run for three years. When the PC government was elected in the summer of 2018, it cancelled the program in one of its first legislative acts.

Panic or Planning?

The PM has opened the treasury in the short term and is spending considerably to do it – and this was certainly the right move, given the threat to society. He has already said there will be more to come during this unprecedented global crisis.

However, there’s no reason this had to be a matter of national panic when it could have been a matter of national planning. Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page has said before that a basic income will cost $43 billion annually to implement across Canada. If we factor in provincial income assistance – and get rid of this inadequate cluster of systems – we’re down to $23 billion dollars a year, as Dr. Evelyn Forget has pointed out.

Incidentally, that’s what we pay every year to make the Canada Child Benefit happen – and not quite half the cost of both the OAS and GIS.

As COVID-19 now stalks the nation, let this pandemic be a catalyst for permanent action to stabilize the lives of millions of Canadians and create a healthier, more equitable Canada.

*This article also appeared on the Lindsay Advocate.