Coronavirus: The case for a universal basic income becomes clearer

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Canada is facing an unemployment crisis unlike any we’ve seen before. Residents across the country are wondering how they are going to pay their rent and keep their businesses open.

The federal government’s $82-billion COVID-19 Economic Response Plan asks us to use the scenario of a single parent of low to modest income with two children to contextualize what their proposed supports would do. There were limited specifics offered in the announcement, but let’s consider what this means for a single parent in the city of Toronto. 

In Toronto, 88.5 per cent of all single-parent homes are led by a woman. Women are also more likely to work part-time, frontline, shift work that can’t be done from home. With all schools, daycare centres and March Break camps closed, this single mother of two will likely have been required to forgo all her income this week. And will have to do the same next week, and in the weeks upcoming.

One of the most straightforward announcements was the proposed enhancements to the GST credit and the Canada Child Benefit. A single parent with two children of low to modest income would receive nearly $1,500 in short-term support. This one-time payment would be released in May.

That means that by the time these payments are made in May, this mother could have been out of work for 7 to 8 weeks. 

Maybe this mother has been laid off rather than just had her hours cut, so she qualifies for Employment Insurance. But maybe not. The demand for EI has very quickly outstripped the capacity of the Canada Revenue Agency to manage it all in a timely fashion. What does this mother do while she waits for approval? 

If our single mother hustles in the gig economy, then she’s part of the nearly 10 per cent of Toronto workers as documented in a Bank of Canada 2019 study who would not qualify for EI. Assuming she could apply for the Emergency Care Benefit, those applications don’t open until April and it will require her to reconfirm her eligibility every two weeks. This benefit will give families a maximum of $1,800 a month. In an expensive city like Toronto that covers the rent.

So maybe the mother decides to take advantage of the low-interest rates and takes out a loan. Which might work if she isn’t already burdened with credit cards or lines of credit.

She has to navigate four different programs and funding streams before our single mother has actually received a single penny of financial support. In an economy already built up largely by consumer debt, asking struggling Canadians to take on even more debt to survive is unconscionable.

This global epidemic guarantees that the weeks, months and years ahead will not look like the ones before. 

The preliminary measures the government announced were welcomed and important, but it wasn’t direct enough, fast enough – or big enough. Today they had to retool their programs into a newly created Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which will provide a monthly $2,000 rescue fund for four months for people who are off work and without an income as a result COVID-19.

The CERB is a time-limited form of a Universal Basic Income. In the economic disaster brought on by this global pandemic, the federal government without bitter debate or partisanship adopted a social policy that dates back to the 16th-century – a basic income guaranteed by the right of citizenship. 

The federal government did this to keep social order and protect the most vulnerable among us. They heard feedback that their initial programs weren’t going to cut it and that people are still falling through the cracks. They smartly pivoted to fix the problem.

Under the declared state of emergency and to ensure governments leave no one behind, our national government has responded with life-saving urgency to invest in people to reconstruct the nation’s economy. When faced with disaster, they did the right thing. 

The real test will be when COVID-19 is behind us. Will our governments continue to do the right thing and make permanent the social programs that were introduced during this time of crisis?

The economy we rebuild can be stronger and more just than the one we started with. Let’s hope governments continue to act when the emergency is over. It’s always been about political choices.

Kristyn Wong-Tam is chair of the Toronto Accessibility Advisory Committee and city councillor for Ward 13 (Toronto Centre).

@nowtoronto