The speed and scale of job loss in the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown was unprecedented and disproportionately impacted low wage workers. This highlighted the fragility of our social safety net, especially for women and racialized low-waged workers, reigniting popular interest in a basic income. The size, simplicity and speed of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), delivered to millions of Canadians within weeks of the economic shutdown, has opened up the possibility of addressing the gaps in our income support system. CERB left some groups behind, but did reach a wide variety of precarious workers that would not have been helped by Employment Insurance (EI), and was more generous than the average EI benefit or social assistance payment.
There is a great deal of noise on the topic of a basic income but very little clarity, since many different policies fall under its broad umbrella. Therefore, calls to transition CERB into a basic income are not as straightforward as they might seem. CERB was designed to stabilize income for workers and not to address poverty among those already struggling before the pandemic hit. CERB was also designed for a particular moment when there was consensus that as many workers as possible should stay home, and so it did not work well for those who still had some income from employment or self-employment. Finally, the cost of CERB raises concerns that governments will cut services in order to pay for any further cash transfers. Any transition from CERB to a progressive basic income will require thinking through these issues and more.
We have an opportunity to boldly redesign social policy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we should toss everything out and start over. This paper seeks to clarify the problem that a basic income might solve, and outline principles to guide policy development from a social democratic perspective. Thoughtful consideration of basic income requires a review of the policies and programs currently in place and evaluate what’s working, what could be fixed, and what should be replaced. It’s important we make sure we’re asking the right questions before we try answering them.
Download the full Basic Income Guarantee: A Social Democratic Framework Report.
This report is part of our Essential Solutions Project, which brings together experts across multiple disciplines to generate innovative answers to the complex challenges we face right now, and chart a path towards a more equitable and resilient future for all of us.