POLITICS
12/19/2018 15:24 EST | Updated 12/19/2018 15:24 EST

Federal Government Says Canadians Will Have Guaranteed Minimum Income 'At Some Point'

The government appears to be warmer to the idea than before.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press
Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Jean-Yves Duclos rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 26, 2018.

OTTAWA — The Trudeau Liberals suggest a guaranteed national minimum income could be an option as they search for ways to help Canadian workers adapt to an unsteady and shifting labour market.

In separate recent interviews, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos appeared warmer to the idea than they have before.

A guaranteed minimum income means different things to different people, but at its core is a no-strings-attached payment governments provide instead of an assortment of targeted benefits. What it costs in additional spending, the thinking goes, it makes up for in reduced bureaucracy for both the government and recipients.

Watch: Participants in cancelled basic income pilot speak out

The two have previously argued that the Liberal-created Canada Child Benefit, among other measures, amounts to a guaranteed minimum income.

But in an interview this week with The Canadian Press, Duclos said the current suite of federal programs could one day be enhanced to provide a minimum income of sorts to all Canadians, particularly those without children who aren't eligible for federal family or seniors benefits or a coming program aimed at the working poor.

"Whether this is going to be enhanced eventually to a broader guaranteed minimum income for all Canadians, including those without children that are not currently covered by a guaranteed minimum income at the federal level, I believe the answer is yes," Duclos said. "At some point, there will be a universal guaranteed minimum income in Canada for all Canadians."

Different programs can 'add up' to guaranteed income: PM

As for when, Duclos was less clear: "One day we will get there too, but that day has not yet arrived."

Federal officials have considered the idea as part of a wide range of concepts being floated to help reshape social-safety-net programs for a modern labour market marked by automation, more short-term "gig economy" jobs and a need for people to retrain several times in their working lives.

The thinking is that the current suite of programs is becoming outdated because it was designed for a workforce that needed help only at certain points, such as graduation from school, losing a full-time job, new parenthood and retirement. Lifetimes of freelancing, contracts and multiple part-time jobs punctuated by returns to school weren't in the model.

Trudeau, in a separate interview, pointed to his government's various attempts at providing workers some stability that "can add up to something that is helpful like a guaranteed minimum income."

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a Liberal fundraising event in Markham, Ont., on December 13, 2018.

He spoke about changing employment insurance to make it easier to land benefits and creating the income-tested Canada Child Benefit; and looked ahead to the Canada Workers Benefit that will provide a wage subsidy to boost the incomes of the country's working poor.

Despite all that, Trudeau said a guaranteed income is one of the tools the government is looking at to help Canadians who are struggling.

"I don't think I'd be speaking out of turn to say that it's still something that is in the universe of all sorts of tools that we're looking at and how to best help Canadians," Trudeau said.

The parliamentary budget office estimated in an April report that federal spending would need to increase $43.1 billion annually to provide every low-income household with a minimum income, beefing up the $32.9 billion Ottawa already spends on support for low-income Canadians.

Feds won't revive Ontario program

Such a program would affect more than 7.5 million people, who would receive on average $9,421 a year, with the maximum amount reaching $16,989 for individuals and $24,027 for couples, before deductions for any income earned.

The concept is not without its critiques, including that it can't be considered a silver bullet for poverty and that it could be a disincentive to work. Its proponents say it could ease income disparity and reduce the size of government by simplifying and streamlining multiple programs into one.

Decades after the first test of "mincome" in Manitoba, Ontario's previous Liberal government launched a pilot project last year, but Premier Doug Ford's government cancelled it shortly after coming to office.

Trudeau and Duclos were clear the federal government won't step in to revive the pilot, saying it isn't Ottawa's job to step in when provincial governments change or eliminate programs.