It’s a very old idea, but one for which the time has come.
The concept of a universal basic income (UBI) was first proposed by Sir Thomas More’s seminal work Utopia, published in 1516.
In Canada, it is an idea that has percolated at the edge of the political spectrum and in academic circles for decades, but has never gained much traction until COVID-19.
All of a sudden, even Conservatives are on board with temporary measures such as the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), the purpose of which is not just to keep individuals afloat, but save the economy itself.
Even pre-pandemic, it was becoming clear that growing income inequality, the disruptive effect of accelerating technological advances on job security and economic stability both for individuals and society in general, was going to need to be addressed in a radically new way.
And let’s face it, Canadian governments have been experimenting with guaranteed income for a very long time in piecemeal, costly and largely ineffective ways.
Are not EI, child tax benefits, CPP, welfare, the OAS, GIS and a host of other programs simply ways of guaranteeing people have on the margins have the means to live?
The problem, of course, with all of these discrete programs is not that they’re not helping the people they’re helping, it’s that there are many others who are falling through the cracks. That is the importance of the U in UBI.
Ensuring that every Canadian citizen has a reasonable living income is not just a moral imperative, it has the potential, combined with an effective housing strategy and robust social services to address virtually every issue in Canadian society from rising health care costs (poverty is the leading determinant of both physical and mental health) to family violence to homelessness to underemployment.
Ontario’s UBI pilot project was actually starting to demonstrate those results prior to being cancelled by Doug Ford’s new Conservative government and contrary to their reasons for doing it.
The country is a long way from having any kind of concrete proposal for how a UBI would work, how it would be paid for etc., but if the pandemic has proven anything, it is that we need to get serious about it.