Will this pandemic's legacy be a universal basic income?



The Great Depression of the 1930s gave us the Bank of Canada, Employment Insurance (EI) and federal equalization payments. The Great Recession of 2008 produced a revolution in monetary policy and a legacy of concern about household debt.

Will the Great Lockdown of 2020 bequeath us guaranteed universal income? Among the many unprecedented aspects of the global coronavirus pandemic is the sudden appearance of a widely available handout from Ottawa. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) provides $500 per week to anyone who’s out of work because of the virus, or the economic shutdown it precipitated.

And while CERB originally excluded students, gig workers and many others, subsequent refinements now mean nearly everyone who finds themselves in need can get some federal cash.

Such a policy innovation was made necessary by the many flaws of the federal EI and provincially run welfare programs; pre-COVID-19, nearly 40 per cent of unemployed Canadians didn’t qualify for EI, and welfare is much too cumbersome to provide emergency support. Within a month of the lockdown, the federal government had processed CERB claims from over seven million Canadians—a third of the entire workforce—and delivered $22 billion in temporary payments. It’s a stunningly successful policy rollout in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime crisis.

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