An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

Well, we’ve discovered at least two things since the COVID-19 cloud descended upon us, one being that we won’t be telling our grandchildren about the pandemic since they’re living through it with us and will have their own stories to tell. Secondly, a Guaranteed Annual Income (GAI) is not only desirable but also very doable and hopefully very probable, judging by the amounts of money Prime Minster Trudeau has been giving out over the past couple of months. I, personally, think it’s been great that the Feds have come to the aid of so many groups around the country, making life a little easier for those who, otherwise, would be in pretty bad financial shape given the situation in which we find ourselves.

Surprisingly, just a few months ago, an American version of a similar plan, Universal Basic Income (UBI) was being endorsed by Andrew Yang, one of those who had been seeking the Democratic nomination for president. In fact, many commentators credit Yang with introducing Americans to the idea of ensuring every American had at least $1,000 a month. As Yang insists on many YouTube videos, not only was a UBI a fundamental innovation before the COVID-19 virus, it became even more necessary as people found themselves without work as companies closed down.

As here in Canada, even those who owned small businesses and probably made a good living last year, found themselves unable to cope now that people were confined to their homes. Yang says that while he’s pleased his government has stepped up to provide money, it should have been directed, not to big business but to individuals. In a reference to those who don’t file tax returns, Yang says, “If we can find you, we will give you financial help.” It has also been suggested that anyone not in need could opt out of the program. He also dismisses the notion of means tests in favor of giving it now to every adult and “clawing it back” through taxes from those with higher earnings.

Unlike in Canada, where much of the financial help will last for the duration of the pandemic, Americans in need were first given a one-time, $1,200 check. The “Heroes Act,” a $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill passed by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives on May 14, includes a second round of checks but faces roadblocks in the Senate and a possible veto by President Trump. Senator Bernie Sanders, who has suspended his campaign for the Democratic nomination, is co-sponsoring a Senate bill calling for a UBI of $2,000 a month for adults for the duration of the pandemic. However, just as in our country, once the public health emergency is over, life for many will go back to what it was before the pandemic: a daily struggle just to survive.


In April, the very week the Canadian government introduced the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) for people affected by the pandemic, The Agenda with Steve Paikin featured a discussion of basic income with Professor Evelyn Forget of the University of Manitoba. I’ve written about Forget before, in an article about Mincome, a Manitoban experiment with guaranteed annual income — the first in Canada — introduced in 1974 and ended by a Conservative government in 1979.

Forget became aware of Mincome when she was a student at the University of Toronto in the early ’70s and heard her professors praising it as “something very important,” as something, in fact, “that would revolutionize the delivery of social programs.” Forget, who in 2005 was a University of Manitoba researcher, discovered the 1,800 boxes of Mincome project records in storage and set out to find some of the people who had been involved in the program. Questioning them about their experience, she discovered, not surprisingly, that it had been a wonderful one that was slashed much too soon.

Steve Paikin, host of The Agenda and Dr. Evelyn Forget, 7 April 2020

Steve Paikin, host of The Agenda and Dr. Evelyn Forget, 7 April 2020

The episode also featured Mike Perry, a lawyer and social worker who resides in Lindsay, one of the areas involved in Ontario’s recent GAI experiment, said that giving people an income didn’t lead to “a mass exodus to the couch,” a notion often put forward by those who are anti-GAI. Perry had nothing but praise for the idea of a GAI, and, in fact, is leading a class-action lawsuit to get the Ontario government to reinstate the program.

Perry speaks of the poor as having been “thrown under the financial bus and having no hope for the future.” Both he and Forget are fine with allowing those on the GAI to work while receiving the benefit, while allowing some recipients might prefer to pursue other activities. Perry referenced one disabled person who was able to finally pursue a lifelong interest simply because he now had a regular income.

Both Perry and Forget, at the time of The Agenda episode, were hopeful that the CERB would be extended as long as the pandemic lasted, and that the real challenge will be to keep the framework in place for a GAI, recognizing that certain people “were always struggling” due to the “limitations of current social assistance.”

Andrew Yang is making a similar case in the US, arguing, “If it can be done now, why not do it after the pandemic?” When people ask how it will be financed, Yang cites companies like Amazon and others that paid no income tax last year that should be called to task (to put it mildly I would say) and made to pay their fair share. Other anti-UBIers seem to think that the money disappears into some void, whereas, as Yang says, that money “goes right back into the economy as the recipients purchase necessities, perhaps get long-overdue car repairs [or, God forbid, a newer car] and also creates jobs.”

Had a GAI been in place as we headed into this totally unfamiliar territory that is life with COVID-19, everyone over 18 might have been able to count on having $2,000 dropped into their bank accounts or mailboxes each month and would possibly even have qualified for a COVID-related financial boost, as those on OAS and/or GIS have. If one of the results of the pandemic is that after all these years, a GAI is put in place that benefits everyone then, as Paikin put it, Hugh Segal, a long-time basic income proponent would surely “be smiling” somewhere.



Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.