Universal livable basic income in times of crisis and beyond

In the wake of COVID-19, people across Canada are struggling to make ends meet or finding themselves in precarious positions. From the get-go, too many of those most marginalized and impoverished did not have the resources to follow public health directives.

Since then, vast numbers of Canadians have been laid off, others have shut their businesses — and many still risk going to work because they can’t afford to take the financial hit. The federal government is expecting four million Canadians to apply for emergency job loss benefits.

The government has rightly recognized that people need financial assistance during these difficult times. We are very supportive of the government’s legislation, passed last week, that’s meant to help. But Canada could be doing much more to provide financial support quickly and effectively in this time of crisis. And we already have the tools in place.

We should be implementing universal income — money that is sufficient to meet basic needs and provide stability, sent directly to Canadians below a certain income threshold.

The government’s new relief programs are application based and the volume threatens to overwhelm the government’s capacity to process them. New web-based portals to take applications are still being developed. This approach creates bureaucratic work, costs and most importantly delays.

We are already hearing concerns from those trying to apply for employment insurance and other government programs. Phone lines, for instance, are jammed: in one week 500,000 people applied for EI, compared to 27,000 during the same week last year.

To make things worse, the government’s capacity to process applications in a timely way is expected to decrease as the number of coronavirus cases grows. We cannot afford to wait in a crisis — we need to get support as quickly as possible to those who need it most.

Universal livable basic income could be distributed and taxed back where total incomes warrant, using the current tax system. This is one of the most simple and effective ways of distributing funds to those in need. We already see this working extremely well under the GST tax credit.

The system is not perfect — it still doesn’t reach everyone who is marginalized — but if a universal income were to be implemented, government workers would no longer have to administer high-volume application processes and could instead carry out vital outreach and support work to those who risk falling through the cracks.

Universal livable basic income would also be able to reach people who do not have access to the internet or who are too sick or otherwise unable to complete complex and backlogged application processes. It would allow us to build on already existing government infrastructure rather than creating additional programs to administer.

Times of crisis force us to make difficult decisions between responses with immediate impact and longer-term responses that more fully address the root causes of a problem. When it comes to the financial fallout of the coronavirus, universal livable basic income is a rare opportunity to do both.

Systemic economic inequality has made some more vulnerable to the coronavirus, including individuals who are poor, homeless or fleeing domestic abuse, and communities — particularly Indigenous communities — that are chronically underfunded.

Universal livable basic income can reduce financial inequality and help vulnerable people secure safe and healthy accommodation in their everyday lives and during times of crisis.

This pandemic provides an opportunity to reflect on how we can improve the system, so people won’t have to make the difficult decisions to risk their health or their financial stability, and so vulnerable people will have the financial means to withstand future crises.

The government has made clear that the economic relief introduced these past two weeks is just a first step and that more measures will likely follow; we are calling for the implementation of universal livable basic income in the next aid announcement as an approach to complement or eventually replace the application-based emergency benefit.


Sen. Frances Lankin, P.C., is a former Ontario cabinet minister.

Sen. Kim Pate is also an adjunct law professor and has spent the past four decades working with and on behalf of marginalized, victimized, criminalized and institutionalized youth, men and women.

They represent Ontario in the Senate.


Article published by The Toronto Star on 1 April 2020