The COVID-19 crisis has exposed how many Canadians live in precarious conditions and still lack a basic safety net to protect them in times of financial difficulty.
Over the past weeks, the Government of Canada has introduced the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), a taxable benefit of $2,000 a month for up to 4 months to eligible workers who have lost their income due to COVID-19. Throughout its rollout, however, the government has been unable or unwilling to ensure that CERB will cover all those that it was intended to protect, and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives estimates that about one-third of Canadians are still left without access to either Employment Insurance (EI) or CERB. Many groups – contract workers, part-time workers, temporary foreign workers, students and seniors in need – don’t qualify for the program, or for EI, and the government has been left scrambling to plug holes, with a hodgepodge of fixes being announced almost daily.
Given the virtually limitless number of different employment, unemployment and underemployment circumstances in which Canadians find themselves, it is unlikely that this piecemeal approach will ever succeed in providing comprehensive coverage. What we are left with is a confusing, ad hoc, case-by-case system that guarantees some Canadians will unnecessarily or unintentionally fall through the cracks.
Instead of plugging holes one-by-one, the solution is to create a comprehensive benefit: Guaranteed Livable Income (GLI). GLI would provide every Canadian with a basic revenue source, ensuring that people can cover basic expenses such as food and accommodation. It would be available with few or no restrictions and be sufficient to protect Canadians from the types of financial catastrophes that many find themselves confronting during the COVID-19 pandemic. Given that GLI would be comprehensive, it will also be simpler and therefore less expensive to administrate (usually one of the greatest costs of social programs).
While it would guarantee basic income security to all, Guaranteed Livable Income would offer the greatest security to the most vulnerable Canadians: precarious workers, the under-employed and the homeless. It would also help workers in the energy industry, a sector that is particularly vulnerable to market shocks.
During the COVID-19 crisis, the concept of GLI has gained traction in other countries. Recently, Spain became the first European country to announce a plan to introduce a Universal Basic Income (UBI) to help families during the pandemic, with the intention that UBI become a permanent instrument that would serve as a safety net for the most vulnerable. The Scottish National Party and the Green Party UK have both called for the introduction of UBI in the United Kingdom. Italy, the Netherlands, Finland and Kenya have all trialed GLI models.
The current focus must be on getting urgent financial relief into the hands of Canadians, which means extending CERB eligibility to cover all Canadians that are currently unemployed. In tandem, work should begin on investigating the various GLI models to determine what would work best in Canadian contexts, so that it can be in place before we confront our next emergency or structural upheaval.