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Canada must step up and implement a universal basic income

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Image: KMR Photography/Flickr

A disheartening reopening of Parliament coupled with a lack of bold ambition from the federal government has left many more alarmed than when this pandemic began -- myself included. 

Before the speech from the throne, there was a feeling in the air that we had an opportunity to repave our future as a country. As said by Sonya Renee Taylor when looking at a COVID recovery, "We are being given an opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature." That "new garment" could be a guaranteed livable basic income.

Since the immediate shock from the halting of Parliament, proroguing gave many on the front lines a moment to dream of what could be included in a just recovery plan. It was an opportunity to distill many recent lessons into a tangible action plan that would endeavour to leave no one behind. 

This reality means universal basic income can no longer be just another dream, despite what many top contrarians may say. 

By now, you've likely heard about the concept of basic income. You've likely also heard about the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), the Canada child benefit (CCB) or the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS). Maybe you know someone on social assistance, or, because of the pandemic, maybe it is you. 

Maybe you are trying to secure an income to leave a volatile or dangerous self-isolating situation, or maybe you lost your job before the pandemic and don't qualify for any of the newly enlisted supports, making you one of many falling through the cracks.

By now, you may also know our current social safety net is broken, fragment and piecemeal. It leaves many stuck in the cycle of poverty through deep administrative red tape and claw backs. Even Canada's minister of employment, workforce development and disability inclusion stood in the House of Commons and reiterated that COVID has highlighted the massive gaps in our social safety net, and that we have an opportunity to "do better."

Yet the entrenched and archaic employment insurance system mirrors a dystopia, where the government controls your finances and monitors your spending -- making those charged to police these programs watchdogs, instead of the human service professionals they ought to be. 

The reality is we aren't going to police our way out of pandemics or poverty. 

A basic income would provide an economic floor to all based on a chosen monetary threshold, not based on means tests. In its inception, this economic floor could be offered as a negative income-tax model to keep administrative costs low and prioritize human rights over means tests.

A prominent recent parliamentary motion from MP Leah Gazan calls for the government to create a guaranteed livable basic income to serve as a human rights-grounded, claw-back free, financial safety net for those who need to access it. Motion 46 paves the way to rewrite the deeply inadequate and complex system that in its current form discourages, delays and then too often denies help to those most in need.

So, if the government won't be ambitious enough to implement a fully universal basic income, we must allow individuals to access supports they need, while also addressing pervasive social issues -- such as racism and structural oppression, an overwhelmed health-care system, food and housing precarity, and the overall health and well-being of our communities. 

This is a time when we desperately need policy that brings us together rather than pitting us against one another. Although UBI will not be a silver bullet, and should not take away from vital social service funding, it isn't a new theory for addressing social issues that extend beyond income, including health care and food security. 

Basic income could also address racial justice, with historical precedents of a guaranteed income emerging decades ago through the work of economists, politicians, visionaries and of course, the organizations who administer these programs -- many of whom understood the disproportionate impacts of poverty on racialized communities and know that racism plays a part in who can access services and when.

As well, during a public health crisis it is imperative we don't flood our health-care systems by only treating the symptoms of poverty rather than the root. Pre-COVID, poverty cost Ontario alone up to $33 billion in 2019. Increased health-care costs in the province due to poverty are estimated at $3.9 billion per year. 

These costs are incurred because those systemically forced to live on low incomes are unable to afford the preventative treatments they need to avoid requiring  emergency services, live with deep stress and anxiety due to their precarity, and suffer from a lack of access to safe and nutritious food. The list goes on. During a time of health-care insecurity, Canada cannot overlook the deep health impacts of poverty. 

The cost of UBI may be steep, but not nearly as steep as the continued underfunding of a system that makes poverty seem like a personal choice rather than a policy decision. By framing poverty in this way, governments are continuing to put the cost of faulty poverty reduction strategies on the backs of those most in need of support.

Canadians cannot afford to waste money on emergency supports and charity disguised as a consistent, robust and flexible social safety net. 

Although the upfront cost of UBI will take political finesse, the investment in our country is not only attainable, but more necessary than ever before.  

And for many who understand the urgency required, what is the cost of continuing to do nothing?

We weren't going to get UBI in the throne speech, but we can continue to push for the basic income policies we want and need. Support motions for UBI like Motion 46; reach out to elected officials and do the research to make personal, informed calls for change. 

The proroguing of parliament meant we had a chance to stitch a new garment. Let's make it one Canada can truly be proud of.

Alexandra Zannis is the policy and communications co-ordinator at the Canadian Association of Social Workers on the Unceded Territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe.

Image: KMR Photography/Flickr

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