POLITICS
09/19/2020 10:56 EDT | Updated 09/19/2020 11:11 EDT

Why You Won't Find A Guaranteed Basic Income In The Liberal Throne Speech

Canada has been talking about basic income for nearly 50 years.

Blair Gable / reuters
Speaker of the House of Commons Liberal Ontario MP Anthony Rota holds a copy of the throne speech in the Senate in Ottawa on Dec. 5, 2019.

OTTAWA — Despite the Liberal caucus’ push, and the prime minister saying the throne speech would focus on closing the gaps and caring for Canada’s most vulnerable, a guaranteed basic income won’t be the landmark of the government’s agenda Wednesday.

The throne speech will neither explicitly endorse nor close the door on basic income, two officials told HuffPost Canada. HuffPost is not disclosing the names of the officials because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Although a basic income won’t be a cornerstone piece of the throne speech, Wednesday’s document will still focus on other benefit programs to get Canadians through the pandemic. And because of the Liberal caucus’ firm support for a guaranteed income policy, a senior source said discussions on that topic will continue. 

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette is scheduled to deliver a new throne speech on Sept. 23, threaded with bold visions and ambitious goals promised by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to serve as signposts for the “economic recovery of our generation.”

One perennial idea that has received renewed attention is a guaranteed basic income. It’s an idea the Liberals have explored in the month since Trudeau prorogued Parliament to give himself an opportunity to write a new, ambitious, non-binding, pandemic-themed agenda.

“There will be many different elements in it in terms of how we make sure that we’re closing some of those gaps in our social safety net and supporting vulnerable Canadians, which we’ve seen all too clearly through this pandemic,” Trudeau said Wednesday after two-and-a-half days of cabinet meetings in Ottawa.

Watch: UN suggests temporary basic income for the poorest could slow pandemic. Story continues below video.

 

Guaranteed basic income has found a groundswell of support on Parliament Hill during the coronavirus pandemic. The federal Liberal caucus recently voted the idea as a top policy resolution for the party’s upcoming national convention in November. And in the upper chamber, more than 50 senators have also signed their names to back a push to evolve the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) into a guaranteed basic income. There have been conversations between the Prime Minister’s Office and Senate counterparts over the idea.

Despite record-level COVID-19-related government spending and an improved supply chain for personal protective equipment (PPE), as long as there’s no viable COVID-19 vaccine, the official explained, Canada is no closer to the coronavirus finish line than when the economy essentially shut down in March and April.

Time is passing, the official said, but sometimes it feels like they’re standing in the same spot.

* * *

Basic income is not a new idea. It goes back 500 years to when English philosopher Thomas More wrote about it in his book Utopia

A guaranteed basic income, also known as a guaranteed livable income or a guaranteed annual income, refers to the concept of a social welfare program that ensures sufficient money to help low-income earners remain above the poverty line. The objective is to give people enough money to afford the minimum amount of food, clothing and shelter — the basic necessities of life. 

An universal basic income is different. Everyone, rich and poor alike, is eligible for a cheque with this concept. 

In Canada, the concept of a guaranteed basic income has been simmering as a policy idea since a 1971 report by late senator David Croll where he proposed it could be a tool to address poverty, which he called the “social issue of our time.” The idea has inspired pilot projects from the “Mincome” experiment in Dauphin, Man. in the ’70s to Ontario’s basic income pilot. Both studies, launched decades apart, came to abrupt ends after elections brought in new governments that scrapped the experiments.

Don Dutton via Getty Images
Archive photo of Mrs. Leona Wood, a mother of three who is on welfare, speaking to David Croll on his way into a Senate probe into poverty in 1970. Mrs. Wood, who was putting herself through university at the time the photo was taken, told Croll that she and other women were slowly starving to death on welfare. Is this the best way the government can help us help ourselves? she asked.

Just last year, a national basic income was listed as one of the “calls for justice” recommendations in the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The report called it one way to break cycles of poverty. A quasi-mini basic income exists in Manitoba today in the province’s Rent Assist program, which aims to help low-income private renters pay housing costs.

The CERB launched in April when weeks of widespread physical-distancing measures essentially grounded the economy to a halt since mid-March. It was in place when the unemployment rate hit a peak in May with 13.7 per cent of Canadians out of work — a new high since 1976. More than 8.5 million people have so far claimed the benefit. Canadians are eligible to receive $2,000 for a four-week period, up to 28 weeks, under the emergency benefit program if their work has been impacted by the pandemic.

Administered by the Canada Revenue Agency and Service Canada, the CERB has been regarded by some advocates as an unintended large-scale experiment for basic income. It was rolled out at breakneck speed to stave off the employment insurance (EI) system from being overloaded with millions of Canadians who found themselves with bills to pay, suddenly out of work or with reduced pay, or ineligible for EI. 

But the intervention hasn’t come cheap. As of Sept. 6, the federal government has paid out more than $76.3 billion in total CERB benefits.

Basic income advocates have pointed to that growing figure as proof funding for the idea is possible and that the challenge has always been political will.

The parliamentary budget officer (PBO) determined in a 2018 report using modelling from the Ontario basic income pilot that a federal version of the program would cost approximately $76 billion to launch. After that first year, the net annual cost would scale down to $44 billion.

AP Photo/Rob Gillies via CP
In this Nov. 21, 2017 photo, Jodi Dean helps her wheelchair-bound daughter Madison, who suffers epilepsy and severe osteoporosis, on an elevator as they leave home for a doctor's visit in Hamilton, Ont. The mother of three received her first basic income check last month and said the extra money gave her family "the breathing room to not have to stress to put food on the table."

Former senator Hugh Segal, a longtime advocate for basic income, told HuffPost in March that it is the most “efficient, humane, non-stigmatizing” way to reduce poverty. But it’s one tool in an arsenal, he said, not an all-in-one solution to flatten all social programs into one to address poverty and its ills. 

“[Basic income] has no impact, nor should it, on all the other things that exist for other reasons like employment insurance or handicap training or any of those things,” Segal said.

‘Very high price’ of poverty

In a 2017 report, the PBO determined it cost $56.8 billion to support low-income Canadians, families, and vulnerable groups through funding a tangle of 55 federal programs and 20 tax credits

Dr. Evelyn Forget, health economics professor at the University of Manitoba, told participants in a Green Party-hosted virtual town hall on guaranteed basic income Thursday that the questions that always come up are about cost and affordability. Forget urged people to think of the cost as “investments” in people and families instead of expenditures because the money would continue to circulate in the economy.

“We are already paying the costs of poverty in this country and we’re paying a very high price for it,” she said. A report from the Ontario Association of Food Banks in 2008 estimated poverty costs the federal and provincial governments up to $13 billion annually.

“We’re paying for poverty through our health-care system when we wait for people to fall ill after many years or poor diets and poor housing and hard work ... We’re paying it through the criminal justice system when we criminalize poor people.”

Zoom/Green Party of Canada
Green Party MP Paul Manly listens as Dr. Evelyn Forget speaks during a virtual townhall discussing guaranteed basic income on Sept. 17, 2020.

Forget is also credited with tracking down 1,800 boxes of research related to the “Mincome” experiment that were packed away for three decades. 

Between 1974 and 1979, the poorest residents of Dauphin received guaranteed basic income, which temporarily eliminated poverty. She told virtual town hall viewers that the experiment had measurable impacts. Hospitalizations fell 8.5 per cent and the crime rate for violent and property crime dropped 15 per cent. Forget said if those results were to be applied today at a national level, that could lead to substantial savings in change.

“We can afford a basic income,” Forget said. “The question, though, is do we want a basic income?”

The PBO offered an updated report this summer, analyzing how much basic income could cost during the COVID-19 pandemic. Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux pegged the cost of a six-month program to be between $45.8 billion and $96.4 billion, depending on how much the benefit is clawed back as people make more money. 

CERB benefits, after the last four-week, $22-billion extension, is expected to cost just over $100 billion, according to government projections.

Liberal MP says sometimes government ‘doesn’t run with the idea exactly as caucus or our membership call’

“We live in a moment of time where many Canadians have realized that income supports have provided a lifeline to them and their families in this crisis,” said Nathaniel Erskine-Smith about the CERB. “They’ve recognized that the social safety net and employment insurance system would have left them behind.” 

The Beaches–East York MP is one of six Liberal MPs who independently proposed guaranteed basic income-related policies as resolutions they want for the federal party’s fall convention. 

Erskine-Smith told HuffPost he and his colleagues consolidated their efforts into a single proposal, which proved to be a successful gambit that attracted support in caucus. There’s no alternative program to basic income that takes poverty and the idea of a social safety net as seriously, he said. 

The Toronto MP is no stranger to backing ambitious policy proposals so he’s keeping his basic-income expectations low for the throne speech.

Perhaps the government doesn’t run with the idea exactly as caucus or our membership call for, but certainly there’s an expectation and we’ve seen, historically, that cabinet has acted on the issues that we identify as priorities in a serious way.Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith

“Do I expect a basic income in the throne speech? Not particularly,” he said. “Do I expect the federal government to build on its efforts in EI reform, and build up on the efforts of the CERB and the [Canada Recovery Benefit] to ensure that we have a permanently strengthened social safety net? Yes.”

Two years ago, Erskine-Smith called on his party to support a push to decriminalize all drugs to address the country’s deadly opioid crisis. Though the effort was rejected by his own party, Erskine-Smith said the government warmed to adopt a public health approach to the opioid crisis (“not as far as obviously I would like and not as far as that resolution called for”) after grassroots Liberal members prioritized it. 

“Perhaps the government doesn’t run with the idea exactly as caucus or our membership call for, but certainly there’s an expectation and we’ve seen, historically, that cabinet has acted on the issues that we identify as priorities in a serious way.”

He said Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland’s promotion to finance minister, judging from her past writing, signals a stronger embrace of the idea of inclusive growth, especially since the pandemic revealed holes in the social safety net that disproportionately impact women and lower-income workers.

Freeland replaced Bill Morneau at finance last month following weeks of anonymous leaks that sowed growing acrimony between Trudeau and his former finance minister.

Asked about the finance minister juggling pressure to rein in spending to control a $343-billion deficit while exploring the idea of basic income, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair used professor Forget’s preferred phrasing. 

The government sees “every expenditure as an investment,” he said. “I have every confidence in our finance minister to strike the all-important balance.”

Singh ‘not worried’ about title of pandemic supports

Friday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh seemed to dampen expectations a basic income would top his wish list for continued parliamentary support of the minority Liberal government. 

Speaking to reporters gathered in Gatineau, just across the Ottawa River from Parliament Hill, Singh said his party still believes “that there should be help in place for everyone that needs it.

“I’m not worried about the title of that support, what it is called, I just want to see money in people’s pockets when they cannot work, when they are forced not to work through no fault of their own. People need to have supports, and that is our goal,” he said. 

The federal NDP suggested this spring that Ottawa replace CERB with a basic income. In August, Winnipeg Centre MP Leah Gazan tabled a private member’s motion to convert the CERB into an “ongoing and permanent” guaranteed livable basic income. A supplementary petition supporting the motion has collected nearly 40,000 signatures

Singh was scheduled to speak with the prime minister Friday, outlining his expectations for next week’s throne speech.

Green parliamentary leader Elizabeth May, who spoke to Trudeau Thursday, told HuffPost her party is absolutely still committed to a guaranteed liveable income but that that was not the focus of her 15-minute conversation with the prime minister. 

“What I stressed [to him] was ‘make your speech from the throne, a …  speech that says this government is all about science. And you are about COVID science and you listened to the experts on COVID, and you are about climate science and you listen to the experts on climate,’” May said. “[We] talk about flattening the curve on COVID, we haven’t flattened the curve on climate, and it has to be dealt with urgently.”

Erin O’Toole’s office declined to respond to a question asking the new Conservative leader about his position on guaranteed basic income.

With files from Althia Raj