Basic income is the answer to a COVID-stricken economy

People are worried about their health, their loved ones, and their future. They’re worried about paying the bills next week.

Experts are telling governments to get money into people’s pockets immediately to blunt the economic hardship from the COVID-19 crisis.

What we need in these unprecedented times is a dose of economic solidarity that will ensure no one falls through the cracks.

And the most efficient and least bureaucratic way to do this is direct cash payments in the form of an emergency universal basic income.

Green parties around the world have been championing the idea for years, with variations depending on the country or province. Federal Greens refer to a Guaranteed Livable Income (GLI), while the Ontario party talks about a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG).

It’s the simplest and most straightforward solution to keep food on the table and weather the economic storm we’ve been thrust into.

The proposal has never made more sense than it does right now, with hundreds of thousands of Canadians losing their earnings.

But let’s face it. Our social safety net has been broken for a long time, and the COVID-19 crisis has only exposed the gaps in our income support programs.

Big segments of the workforce do not qualify for Employment Insurance, from part-time contract workers in the gig economy to the self-employed.

And for those who do qualify, the application process is a painful one, weighed down with delays and unnecessary complications.

The nearly one million Canadians who filed for EI last week would be justified in their anxiety over whether the system is ready to support them.

The current crisis also reveals just how powerless low-wage workers are to protect themselves from the coronavirus or any other dangerous work condition.

That’s because refusing to work at an unsafe job site is not an option for a worker who will only qualify for benefits if they are laid off.

Imagine the stress of going to work, knowing the conditions could expose you and ultimately your family to the virus, and yet feeling like you have no other choice because you cannot afford to walk away.

Likewise, how sad if workers felt compelled to ignore their symptoms and apply for work at delivery companies like Amazon because their incomes have disappeared.

We need the government to step in so people can put their health over their wages.

Supporters of a basic or livable income are a mixed bag of thinkers from the left and right and advocates whose goals range from tackling poverty to reducing government waste to adapting to an increasingly automated workforce.

The idea made a lot of sense even before this pandemic and that’s why governments were starting to experiment with pilots programs.

The Ontario pilot was showing promising results, especially for those in poverty, when the Ford government cancelled it in 2018 on the basis of an unproven hypothesis that people were being discouraged from working.

This pilot was making a positive difference in people’s lives and COVID-19 has given us every reason to implement it on a larger scale for the wave of Canadians whose incomes have plummeted.

Let’s allow a basic income to provide the urgent and efficient solution that we need.

Let’s get money into people’s pockets immediately so they can pay the rent and keep the lights on, which will also keep our economy sputtering rather than totally collapsing.

Let’s choose universal payments that can be in the mail next week rather than applying complex new formulas to an already dysfunctional system.

It’s time for an emergency basic income to ensure hundreds of thousands of Canadians don’t fall through the cracks.

Perhaps, like other plans that are drawn up in a crisis, we’ll discover that it makes sense to keep a basic income once this particular emergency is over.

Because COVID-19 won’t be the last major setback to the Canadian economy.

The next time it could be a devastating shock from the climate crisis or a big technological shift that displaces workers.

To many, a universal basic income used to sound far-flung or radical. Now it just might be the most rational thing we can do for Canadians.

Mike Schreiner is leader of the Green Party of Ontario.

Jo-Ann Roberts is Interim Leader of the Green Party of Canada.


Article published by The Toronto Star on 25 March 2020