Article in The Star, April 5, 2020.
Peter Martin doesn’t get it.
Workers who have suddenly lost their livelihoods due to the COVID-19 crisis are receiving $2,000 a month from Ottawa to keep them afloat. And soon students will be getting between $1,250 and $1,750 a month to make up for the loss of summer jobs.
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 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, Ottawa and Ontario are pumping $350 million and $200 million respectively into social service agencies to fill the gap.
But Martin wonders why there is a federal plan for workers and students but no financial help for people like him.
“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. The benefit was expanded earlier this month to include anyone earning less than $1,000 a month.
“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.
“Those three groups of opponents are going to be just as dug in after (the pandemic) as they are now,” he predicted.
Adding to the challenge, will be the call for fiscal restraint to bring down a deficit that will likely top $200 billion due to the crisis.
But in a minority government anything can happen, Segal said, suggesting the NDP and others could make basic income a condition of support.
“I remain really optimistic,” he said. “But I think we have to be realistic about the constraints that we’re going to have to face.”
University of Manitoba economist Evelyn Forget’s research on Manitoba’s minimum basic income experiment in the late 1970s has been a major force behind renewed interest in the concept. One of her promising findings from the rural town of Dauphin, where most low-income families received the benefit, was a drop in hospital admissions and an increase in high school graduations.
Basic income is always discussed during times of economic collapse, most recently during the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, she noted.
But once the economy recovers, the idea falls by the wayside.
“One of the things we are seeing now is how limited existing programs are, and how hard it is to make them work together to make sure nobody falls through the gaps,” she said in an interview from Winnipeg.
“It’s because we don’t have a basic income. That’s going to be hard for people to ignore going forward,” she predicted. “The limitations of those programs are becoming very, very apparent.”
Basic income could gain more acceptance after the pandemic if today’s economic measures to support business and ordinary Canadians are successful — and remain popular with the public, she predicted.
“But we are at a point where things could go in either direction,” she said.
If the government’s action is shown to be excessive or wasteful, the idea of more broader basic-income-type measures could fizzle.
“One hopes basic income doesn’t have to wear any mistakes they might make,” she added.
Economist Armine Yalnizyan, however, says a basic income for everyone is the last thing Canada needs when the crisis is over.
“Basic income helps people make the choice of not going to work,” said Yalnizyan, the Atkinson Charitable Foundation’s fellow on the future of workers.
“And when this is over, we are going to need all hands on deck. We can already anticipate labour shortages in the essential services and non-profit sector, in health care, child care, first responders — work that robots can’t do.”
For Yalnizyan and labour activists, basic services — child care, pharmacare, dental and vision care and more affordable, reliable public transit — are a better bet for the same public investment.
Building a robust system of basic services for everyone will grow the middle class and allow its members to spend money on more discretionary items, she argued.
With an aging society, Canada will need its working-age population to have enough discretionary income to keep the economy growing, she added.
“Yes, we have to focus on the most vulnerable. Yes, we have to stabilize the economy from the bottom up. Yes, we have to fill in the cracks in the floor so the whole building doesn’t collapse,” she said, noting governments are scrambling to do that now in the eye of the pandemic.
“But when we get through to the other side … we have to also set our sights on making sure those who are able to work, and can work full-time, are working. And that their work is valued.”
Increasing incomes — valuing the caring work that this crisis has highlighted — is a better economic strategy than giving people basic incomes to bolster lousy pay, she argued.
Toronto social policy expert John Stapleton is also a skeptic who says a basic income for every Canadian from cradle to grave would “never fly,” particularly with seniors who would oppose any attempt to tinker with their hard-earned benefits.
But the former provincial social services bureaucrat says the pandemic may provide an opening for a less overbearing and dehumanizing welfare system.
The ministry’s move in March to suspend mandatory monthly income reporting for people on social assistance during the crisis — largely due to the need for physical distancing — brings the program one step closer to a basic-income-type delivery model, Stapleton said.
“It could be the beginning of streamlining the system and making it less onerous on people and (case) workers,” he said. “It’s kind of like basic income through the back door.”
Yalniyzan agrees that COVID-19 may force governments to rethink support to the most vulnerable working-age adults, those who are too ill to work or who can’t work full-time. And a federal program, based on a basic income, may be the way to go.
“Through this experience, more eyes have been opened to the reality facing a lot of our neighbours,” she said. “And we have seen in real time our ability to respond together when we view ourselves as in it together.”
The question is whether that sense of solidarity will last.
Peter Martin certainly hopes so.
In ordinary times, Martin pays $740 of his $1,169 monthly ODSP cheque on rent and about $300 on medical marijuana to control his severe PTSD. The remaining $129 goes toward transportation to the Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre (PARC) for meals and socialization and where he earns $30 a week as a peer support worker.
But to keep staff and community members safe, PARC has suspended all peer support work and is limiting drop-in meals to people who are homeless.
Martin is paying a friend to buy him groceries out of the money he usually spends on TTC fare while he self-isolates due to an underlying health condition that makes him vulnerable to the virus.
“There are an awful lot of people on ODSP right now who are really, really scared,” he said. “We’re talking about not paying our rent because we need to buy food.”
Martin admires the heroism of health-care workers and others on the front lines helping the sick and vulnerable. And he is buoyed by the collective concern of Canadians “pulling together” to get through the crisis.
“But for people like us, this is not a crisis,” he said. “It is just another crisis.
“I just hope people remember us when this is over.”