Advocates hopeful CERB will pave way for universal basic income

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Advocates for a universal basic income say they're hopeful the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) program, introduced to help unemployed and underemployed Canadians through the pandemic, will pave the way toward a more equitable system for all.

Turning the CERB into a universal basic income is the logical progression for the program, according to Elaine Power, a Queen's University researcher and member of the Basic Income Canada Network in Kingston, Ont.

"There's more and more pressure on the government, I would say, to extend the CERB. I think the basic income would be a logical extension of CERB, and it's a more rational plan," Power told Ottawa Morning on Thursday.

The Parliamentary Budget Office has started to study the potential cost of providing a basic income for Canadians for six months, a move Power called "very exciting news."

Some similarities

The idea already has the support of some members of the Senate, including B.C. Sen. Yuen Pau Woo.

With the CERB set to expire in October, Power said now would be the right time to consider making the transition to a universal basic income, which is like CERB but would be universally available, not tied to employment.

On Wednesday, Finance Minister Bill Morneau presented his fiscal snapshot in the House of Commons, and said the government is committed to delivering emergency aid to struggling Canadians.

"Our collective decisions as Canadians to put each other's health above all else has meant we've flattened the curve faster than many other countries. But Canadians also made great sacrifices to get here. Millions of Canadians have lost their jobs, lost hours, or lost wages. Businesses of all sizes are still facing uncertainty," Morneau said.

Workers living below poverty line

Power said that while nothing in Morneau's speech signalled the government is ready to adopt a basic income, she hopes the government will consider the economic benefits of such a program nonetheless. She said it would save money over time within the health-care, education and justice systems.

"There are other benefits that I think we can't calculate — the benefit to people who live in poverty, who feel trapped there. The kind of freedom that it would give them to make better choices about their lives, their futures."

Power said there are still "stereotypes" around basic income, such as the fear that it will leave recipients dependent on government handouts instead of contributing to the workforce, and that it will add to the deficit already creaking under the weight of Canada's COVID-19 response.

"We know that, in fact, most people who live in poverty in Canada are employed. They do already have jobs, but they don't make enough to bring them up to the poverty line," Power said.

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