Is a basic income on the horizon?
Advocates would say “absolutely”. It seems a day doesn't go by without another opinion piece pointing out that the pandemic has created the ideal conditions for its adoption here in Canada.
People want radical change, especially for people who are struggling.
COVID-19 may render millions permanently unemployed and adopting a basic income would be truly transformative.
In response to the pandemic, the federal government introduced CERB (Canada Emergency Response Benefit), offering $2000 a month to all those left unemployed by the current crisis. Although temporary, its effectiveness makes it the ideal template for a permanent program.
Proponents even claim the support of Pope Francis.
I am torn by all this.
As a former Ontario Minister of Community and Social Services, I am intrigued by the idea of guaranteed minimum income replacing a broken social assistance system and sending a clear signal that in a wealthy nation like Canada everyone deserves to live in dignity.
As a former politician, however, I am struggling. I simply don't see how our current situation has caused the planets to align in favour of basic income.
Start with CERB, as well as the alphabet soup of other supports offered by the federal government for those affected by COVID-19. They have been rolled out fast and furiously with little time to safeguard them against abuse - cracks are beginning to show.
Mark my words, once the dust settles, access to information requests combined with investigations by the Auditor General and various parliamentary committees are going to produce such a steady stream of tales of misuse, double dipping and downright fraud that the opposition will think that they have died and gone to heaven.
There has also been a growing number of potential employers complaining that federal support for laid off workers to remain home has made hiring more difficult– a phenomenon that is sure to grow as the economy reopens.
That leads us to the desire for radical change. I sincerely hope this is the case.
But there is going to be a competing concern – the state of our public finances. As fear of the virus subsides, there is going to be a general realization that we can't continuously borrow mind-boggling sums of money. Calls for governments to get their fiscal houses in order will become louder – not an ideal condition for expensive new initiatives.
What of the unemployed? Here advocates of basic income have their strongest case – the future is sure to be full of many jobless who would welcome more financial support.
But they are also going to want a job.
Whether intentional or not, basic income advocates often present a bleak view of the future economy – where automation and artificial Intelligence result in huge numbers of jobs permanently disappearing. Even if it's true, casting basic income in this light has the potential to send a message that robs us of hope – “you may never work again, but don't worry there will be a program to support you”.
Politics thrives on hope and especially in our new reality, political agendas focused on job creation and retraining may fare much better than ones calling for new supports for the unemployed.
Which brings us back to the Pope. Although a strong proponent of social transformation, contrary to many media reports, he has never advocated for basic income.
It's true that Francis recently spoke of the need for a “universal basic wage”. The Vatican, however, later explained that the Pope was not referring to basic income but was instead calling for stable wages and benefits for those in precarious employment.
A Vatican spokesperson went on to cite a 2017 speech where the Pontiff spoke of the importance of “work for all” over “income for all”, noting that: “a monthly check, a monthly allowance that enables you to support a family does not solve the problem. The problem must be resolved with work for everyone.”
Advocates of Basic Income shouldn't stop. They need, however, to recognize that despite a very real desire for radical change, moving forward with a minimum guaranteed income for all in our post- pandemic world is far from the slam dunk many believe.
John Milloy is a former MPP and Ontario Liberal cabinet minister currently serving as the Director of the Centre for Public Ethics and assistant professor of public ethics at Martin Luther University College, and the inaugural practitioner in residence in Wilfrid Laurier University's Political Science department. He is also a lecturer in the University of Waterloo's Master of Public Service Program. John can be reached at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @John_Milloy.