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When could universal basic income start in Canada?

Homeless people set up encampments in Edmonton on  Jan. 9, 2024. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press files) Homeless people set up encampments in Edmonton on Jan. 9, 2024. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press files)
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Advocates say a universal basic income program could make a difference in helping people struggling in precarious and low-income jobs.

But some wonder if it will effectively tackle the problem of poverty and if Canada could even afford a program.

The concept is controversial, though the program has recently gained attention in a few provinces. Newfoundland and Labrador announced in November 2023 a three-year program for residents aged 60 to 64, which will provide the equivalent of the federal seniors' benefits, The Canadian Press reported.

"The social determinants of health have a far greater impact on well-being than the health-care system itself," said Newfoundland Premier Andrew Furey, an orthopedic surgeon. "I'm proud to say that as a government, we are placing a heightened focus on the social determinants of health, both in our spending and our policy directives."

A report in November revealed details of a possible five-year guaranteed basic income program, which would provide income that's 85 per cent of the government-determined official poverty line in Prince Edward Island.

As well, the Senate is studying Bill S-233, which was introduced by Sen. Kim Pate in 2021, to create a national framework for a guaranteed livable basic income.

If passed, the bill would require the minister of finance to develop a national framework to provide everyone over the age of 17 in Canada, including temporary workers, permanent residents and refugee claimants, with access to a guaranteed livable basic income.

Pate said the Canada Emergency Response Benefit for workers directly affected by COVID-19 shows the country has the infrastructure and ability to design programs quickly in response to economic need.

"We can afford guaranteed livable income, but what we cannot afford are the human, social, financial and health costs of continually abandoning people to poverty and homelessness," Pate said in an email to CTVNews.ca. "Recommendations to implement guaranteed livable income date back at least five decades, notably when recommended by 1970s reports of the Special Senate Committee on Poverty and the Commission on the Status of Women."

As Canada's Senate studies the bill, CTVNews.ca spoke with experts on the prospects of the program in Canada.

What is a guaranteed basic income?

While Wayne Lewchuk, a professor emeritus in the school of labour studies and the department of economics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., couldn't guess when a guaranteed basic income program could start in Canada, he believes Canada can afford one.

He said a guaranteed basic income is a minimum payment each individual would receive on a regular basis without any restrictions.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer estimated a national guaranteed basic income would cost about $88 billion in 2022-23.

"I think to be frank, they can't not afford to implement basic income because we're at a point on the development of our economy or society where an increasing number of people are being left behind, and we need to provide them with the supports which allow them to be fully functional citizens in our society," Lewchuk said in a Zoom interview with CTVNews.ca.

Leslie Boehm, adjunct professor at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, adds that the basic income would require setting an income floor that no one would go below and would vary by geographic area.

"So if people go below, you provide that money for them in order to make sure they're at that minimum income," he said in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca. 

Pate says it would work alongside other key social supports and programs such as those related to health care, housing affordability, labour protections and access to education. "It would represent an amount sufficient to afford necessities and to provide economic stability," she explained.

Examples of programs

Canada already has significant experience with guaranteed livable income, Pate pointed out. She noted many municipalities have passed resolutions in support of implementing a basic income.

"In addition to pilots in Ontario in the 2010s and Manitoba in the 1970s, the Canada Child Benefit, the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors and the upcoming Canada Disability Benefit are all forms of basic income at the national level, for children, seniors, and those with disabilities respectively," she explained. "As more and more people struggle to keep a roof over their head and food on their plates, more and more leaders from the local to the national level are looking to guaranteed livable income as a solution to poverty and instability. It's not a new idea — it's an idea whose time has come."

Boehm said there are examples when governments did find funds for programs including during the First World War and Second World War, and as recently as the COVID-19 era. He also cited the instances when then-Saskatchewan premier Tommy Douglas implemented Canada's first hospital insurance plan in the province in 1947 and then-British prime minister Clement Attlee launched the National Health Service Act 1946 that made health care free based on citizenship and need despite Saskatchewan and Britain's economic woes.

"What you had was politicians … of conviction who wanted to do this and they found a way," Boehm said. "Look what we afforded in COVID, we were printing money like crazy. … So if there's a will, there's a way."

A well-known Canadian example that some regarded as successful was the "Mincome" program, a social experiment that lasted for four years in the 1970s.

Then-Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau partnered with then-Manitoba NDP premier Ed Schreyer to run the program, mostly in Dauphin, Man. The program allowed people to receive benefits each month even if they were working, with bigger payments for those with lower incomes. Researchers said Ottawa decided not to renew the program because it couldn't afford it during a recession in the late 1970s.

How would it work?

Those designing the program would need to determine the basic level of support, or the amount of money per month, for program recipients, Lewchuk said.

The people creating the program would also need to determine how much of the funds get clawed back if a participant starts earning income, and whether it would be given to everybody or just a select group.

"On top of that, we already have a pretty extensive support system for people through ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program) and unemployment insurance and other kinds of benefits," Lewchuk said.

"How do you integrate those into a basic income? So there are lots of design questions but I think the basic needs are pretty clear and I don't think it's terribly complex. What we need is to get on and give it a try. ... There are still uncertainties, what the long-term implications of this (are), if we implemented a full-scale basic income for everyone over the next 10, 20 or 30 years."

Is it realistic?

With Canada facing a labour shortage and aging population, Lewchuk said a guaranteed basic income makes sense for the country. He said it would even be realistic to launch a program nationwide rather than a small pilot.

"Pilots provide interesting evidence of how this works, but I think what we really need is a full scale launch to actually see how it's going to work," Lewchuk said. "It's not cheap, but it's also not so excessively expensive that we couldn't imagine it in Canada."

There's a real cost to not implementing a basic income, Lewchuk explained. "Because a lot of people, they're not just suffering because they don't have enough income to provide a decent standard of living. They're suffering because they've become unproductive because they don't have enough income to provide for themselves, to cover their basic needs and allow them to be fully engaged in our society."

One of Boehm's concerns, however, is whether basic income would support low wages.

"And so if we implement basic income, are we not saying to all those employers that are out there, 'OK, keep on paying an unlivable wage, not a problem,'" Boehm said. "And the responsibility then is not being placed on you to pay this livable wage, we the government will take care of that fact. So you guys continue to be greedy, not a problem, and the taxpayers will make up that difference."

Boehm suggests that a big part of the solution is legislating a livable wage."You know, like we legislate a minimum wage, for example," he said. "Let's just make our minimum wage a livable wage."

With files from The Canadian Press, CTVNewsWinnipeg.ca and CTV News Atlantic Journalist Jack Morse

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