In the midst of pandemic, P.E.I. group sees the makings of basic income guarantee

When the federal government unveiled its plan to provide Canadians whose employment has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic with a monthly income of $2,000, members of P.E.I.'s Working Group for a Livable Income saw something that looked a lot like what they and others have been trying to bring to P.E.I. for years: a basic guaranteed income.

"It's very close to what we would be advocating for," said Jillian Kilfoil, executive director of Women's Network PEI, one of the members of the working group.

"This wouldn't be ... the exact model that we would necessarily advocate for. But it does provide that universal monthly income to people and we would just want to take that and expand that."

The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) offers income support for up to 16 weeks to those who lose pay because of the pandemic. A government news release says the program will cover Canadians who lost their jobs, got sick, are under quarantine or have to stay home because of school closures.

It's available to wage earners, contract workers and self-employed people who don't qualify for employment insurance.

Kilfoil said the response from all levels of government over COVID-19 shows the level of assistance that can be provided to Canadians in financial difficulties as a result of factors beyond their control.

The mistake, she said, is in thinking these types of situations didn't exist before the pandemic.

"We often assume that people are experiencing these challenges because of individual decisions that they've made or poor choices that they've made," said Kilfoil. 

"As a result of this pandemic we're providing more support because we feel like it's not individual people's fault. It's something beyond them that happened that put them into this circumstance. And so what we're really trying to say is that happens to people all the time, and the way we're responding to this pandemic is how we need to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable all the time."

'Lowest-paid workers ... are being deemed essential'

Kilfoil said another thing the current crisis has highlighted is that many deemed essential workers are among the most economically vulnerable in society.

"What we're seeing right now is some of our lowest-paid workers, people working on the front lines right now: cashiers, delivery drivers, taxi drivers. These are the people who are being deemed essential workers during this pandemic and they don't have the income that reflects the importance and the value that they play in our society and in our workforce."

Kilfoil said with so much changing right now, this is the time to push for lasting changes.

"As we move forward we need to be reflective and we need to be learning from this. We need to be asking difficult questions so that we're better prepared in the future if something like this were to happen again."

But UPEI economist Jim Sentance said what Ottawa is doing in response to COVID-19 isn't sustainable.

"It's one thing to have a temporary income support like this on limited distribution, and another to implement an ongoing program," he said. 

"Keep in mind this is all being paid for by debt. That's not sustainable in the long run," said Sentance. "So whatever the merits of [a basic income guarantee], the question of how you pay for it is still there," something he said the current roll-out of support from Ottawa doesn't change.

Would require 'substantial' tax increases

Both Kilfoil and Sentance said tax increases could provide funding for an ongoing basic guaranteed income. But Sentance said a program with enough funding to lift people above the poverty line "would require substantial increases in tax rates, and not just for the stinking rich," a move which he said might not be supported by taxpayers.

The P.E.I. legislature has struck a special committee to explore the possibility of a basic income pilot project for the province, tasked with providing the house with a costed plan to implement one.

"This crisis has clearly illustrated many serious gaps in our system — and particularly the way we support many hard-working Islanders," said Gord McNeilly, the Liberal MLA for Charlottetown-West Royalty and a member of the Special Committee on Poverty in P.E.I.

"As we work through this crisis, it will be important to our recovery to address those gaps," said McNeilly. "The important job right now is to address immediate needs.

The committee met more than a dozen times through the latter part of 2019 and into early 2020, but all further committee meetings have been cancelled for now, and the spring sitting of the legislature suspended as a result of the current public health emergency.

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature. [email protected]

With files from Kathleen Harris.

Article published by CBC News on 2 April 2020.