Peter Martin doesn’t get it.
Workers who have suddenly lost their livelihoods due to the COVID-19 crisis will soon be receiving $2,000 a month from Ottawa to keep them afloat.
And yet Martin, 59, a former constitutional lawyer who lost everything about a decade ago after a mental breakdown, struggles to survive on just $1,169 a month from the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), the province’s welfare program for the disabled.
“It’s a very frustrating situation,” he said this week from his Junction-area apartment where he is self-isolating with his black cat.
“They are getting $2,000 when they have a house to live in and supports and sometimes savings — as opposed to people like us who live cheque to cheque,” he said.
Martin and other Canadians on social assistance live between 40 and 60 per cent below the poverty line and are forced to rely on community supports such as drop-in meal programs and food banks to survive.
As physical-distancing orders push many of those programs to close, Ontario is pumping $200 million into social service agencies to fill the gap.
But Martin wonders why there is a federal plan for workers that pays $2,000
“They are giving money to agencies to provide food to people who come out of isolation to get it,” he said. “Why not just give the money to us so we can buy our own groceries?”
It is a question supporters of a basic income were asking long before the coronavirus struck China earlier this year and exploded into a global health crisis. And it is a demand they have since amplified through an online petition signed by more than 30,000 calling for an emergency basic income to help Canadians weather the storm.
Ottawa responded March 26 with the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB), a monthly payment of $2,000 for four months that will go to any worker who earned at least $5,000 in the past 12 months and has lost their job as a result of the pandemic.
“It’s not the unconditional basic income that Canadians across the country asked for when they signed our petition,” acknowledged Toronto businessman Floyd Marinescu, founder of UBI Works Canada, which launched the petition March 16. “But it’s a signal that our leaders recognize the value of a basic income as an economic recovery measure.
“This emergency basic income will open the door for our government to learn about the benefits of a UBI as an economic stimulus that will benefit all Canadians — and act to make it reality,” he said in a statement on the campaign’s Facebook page.
The reason unemployed workers are being treated so much better in this crisis than people on social assistance is that middle-income voters swing elections and society’s most vulnerable often don’t vote, Marinescu said in an interview.
And that is why this is a historic opportunity.
“As many as four million Canadians are going to be applying for the CERB and will see just how precarious their own situation is. With that real, lived experience, we can rally the centre to implement a basic income for everyone,” he said.
Businesses automate to survive when times are tough, and this global crisis will see even more jobs lost to automation, Marinescu added.
He predicts more than two million Canadians who will receive a temporary basic income through the CERB may not have jobs to come back to when it runs out.
“Now is the time to push for a UBI so this next recession can be shorter and we can all come out better off,” he said.
Former Tory senator Hugh Segal couldn’t agree more.
He helped design Ontario’s ill-fated basic income pilot project, introduced in 2017 by Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government in 2017 and scrapped by Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives when they swept to power in June 2018.
Because the experiment ended prematurely, the province — and researchers watching around the world — were not able to determine if sending unconditional cash payments to low-income residents improved their health, education, housing and employment prospects.
But informal surveys of those who participated showed promise. A majority who had low-wage jobs before the trial remained in the workforce. Many went back to school, and mental health improved dramatically.
Segal’s model was similar to the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors that kicks in when incomes drop below a certain level.
It brought incomes for working-age adults up to about 75 per cent of the provincial poverty line, or about $1,400 a month. Individuals with disabilities got a monthly top-up of $500. It was a stark difference compared to Ontario’s current monthly social assistance benefits of $733 for people deemed able to work and $1,169 for those with disabilities.
And unlike social assistance, Segal argues his basic income model encouraged people to work because those with annual incomes of up to $34,000 — or about $12,000 above the poverty line — would still receive some support.
On social assistance, onerous monthly reporting requirements allow people to keep just $200 in earnings a month before clawbacks. It means someone on Ontario Works (OW) deemed employable can earn only $1,666 a month — or just under $20,000 a year — before they get kicked off.
Compared to the $100-billion-plus COVID-19 federal relief package, the Parliamentary Budget Office in 2018 estimated it would cost Ottawa just $43 billion in new funding to provide a national, guaranteed minimum income, similar to the one Ontario was testing. And it would support about 7.5 million working-age Canadians.
Segal, the Matthews Fellow in Global Public Policy at Queen’s University, says the global pandemic highlights the vulnerability of precarious workers and people with disabilities struggling to survive on social assistance.
“Once the pandemic is under control and people can relax a bit, the public and policy-makers will be taking a hard took at what went wrong and what we could do better,” he said in an interview.
“And one area for reform is the lack of agility our existing social cash-transfer systems have with respect to getting money to low-income people quickly when necessary,” he said.
Polling shows close to 70 per cent of Canadians support basic income, Segal noted.
“We already have a basic income for children through the Canada Child Benefit and the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors and a tiny bit of help for low-income people through the GST tax credit,” he said.
“It’s not really the world’s largest construction job to put those things together and find a way to do this through a basic income guarantee for all … It’s just a question of political will.”
Public sector unions and those who worry about the collapse of social programs will oppose it, he predicted, as will those who argue paying people to do nothing will cause them to abandon the labour force.
But basic income is about more efficient cash transfers to people, not about cutting services, Segal said. And 70 per cent of people living in poverty have a job, he noted. Often more than one. A basic income could supplement that low-wage work and lift them out of poverty, he said.
The other roadblock will be government finance officials who would see such a large, annual expenditure as a limit on their ability to design and craft new initiatives, Segal said. SOURCE