For decades, many in the poverty-reduction movement have advocated for a universal basic income, or UBI (some also call it a guaranteed annual income), to be set up at the federal level. A UBI would mean that all Canadians, regardless of income, would receive a monthly payment sufficient to raise them above the poverty line.
For those who already have an income above a certain level, the Canada Revenue Agency would tax back their UBI payment each year.
A UBI program would ensure that all Canadians have a reliable source of some kind of minimal financial security. At the same time, it would do away with the numerous and cumbersome provincial bureaucracies that currently administer our very inadequate income subsidies, such as welfare and disability payments, which usually only pay about half of the poverty rate.
You might be surprised to learn that one of the leading advocates of setting up some form of guaranteed annual income is a federal Conservative and former senator, Hugh Segal—a man I greatly admire. He’s also a quintessential Red Tory. In fact, his latest book, which came out late last year through UBC Press, is called Boot Straps Need Boots: One Tory’s Lonely Fight to End Poverty in Canada.
It’s easy for me to respect Mr. Segal. He’s been a tireless advocate for a UBI for decades.
He grew up in a poor, working-class immigrant family in Montreal and knows firsthand what a difference it would make. He even set up a pilot project for basic income in Ontario for Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government, which was later scrapped by Doug Ford! (You can check out Hugh Segal’s ideas in this excellent interview on CBC’s The Sunday Edition.)
What’s got me wondering if we’re moving closer to a UBI is the new federal program—the CERB or the Canada Emergency Response Benefit—set up to financially help people after all the pandemic-related economic slowdowns and job losses.
This program continues to evolve and is looking more and more like a UBI every day. I’m not the only person to observe this—Mr. Segal, for one, has, too. But I can tell you something from my own personal history which explains why I’m so in favour of it.
A UBI would have made a world of difference to me as I made my way through college, university and, finally, law school on a pauper’s budget. I did have some income through minimal student loans, and for the most part I was trying to live on $500 a month to pay for my books, my tuition, my rent, my food—just about my entire cost of living.
During the six years I studied to be a lawyer, I owned one pair of shoes, brown ones that I wore every day and had to dye black in order to be properly attired when I was called to the bar because I couldn’t afford a new pair of shoes.
Like the title of Mr. Segal’s book suggests, I would’ve loved to have pulled myself up by my boot straps if only I could have afforded a pair of boots back then!
Living in poverty isolates you from society. You can’t take part in natural social interactions, like going for a coffee with your friends. You can’t afford new or even secondhand clothes. Living with an inadequate, insecure income leaves people vulnerable, stressed and unable to plan for the future.
I can’t imagine how much better my life would have been in those years with a UBI, and I know how much better it would make the lives of millions of Canadians living below the poverty line today.
It would be an absolute no-brainer for the feds to use the system already set up for CERB to roll out a full-fledged universal basic income after this pandemic winds down. In fact, it might be one of the smartest moves the federal government could take to get the economy back on its feet.
Fingers crossed—it could be a silver lining to COVID-19.