The time has come for a guaranteed livable income
P.E.I. pilot proposal creates hope, writes Lorne Calvert.
The pandemic has reanimated the discussion of a guaranteed livable income in Canada. The goals of any guaranteed income program are to provide for the basic needs of households and families, to consolidate the hodgepodge of income support programs that exist, to simplify access to and delivery of income support, and to avoid the need for ad hoc programs in times like these.
This is not a new idea. For decades, former Conservative senator Hugh Segal advocated for a Canadian guaranteed basic income. In the 1970s the NDP government of Manitoba launched a pilot project. More recently, the Ontario Liberal government created a test in several Ontario communities. Unfortunately, both pilots ended prematurely when governments changed.
In Canada, a new window of opportunity has opened to allow us to make real progress in establishing the viability of a guaranteed livable income.
The legislature of Prince Edward Island has found all-party agreement in support of the idea of a guaranteed livable income.
The legislature has committed to establishing a new pilot project, in concert with the federal government, to experience and test the concept. All that remains is for the federal government to offer its support. Because all-party agreement has been established in P.E.I., even if government should change, the project will continue and we will have our first real experience of a basic income program in Canada.
We in Saskatchewan know well how national programs can have their beginning provincially. More than a half century ago we acted to establish medicare in this province. More recently, the child benefit was first established in Saskatchewan before it was adopted as a national program. Pilot projects like the one proposed by Prince Edward Island can establish the foundations of long-lasting national programs.
A workable basic income concept does not argue for `the same cheque for everyone' with a tax-back provision for those not in need. A workable program would provide a guaranteed income supplement, like the seniors' GIS, to enhance other sources of income up to a level that provides a livable household income.
Using our existing tax system requires no new administration. The level of income required for the basics of life; the rate at which the supplement is reduced as other sources of income grow; finding ways to connect those who are not currently connected to the tax system; and meeting special needs like those of disability are all grist for the mill of a pilot project or projects.
The question of whether we can afford a guaranteed livable income will and must arise. In November, the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimated the cost of a fully implemented national program by 2024-25, with a phaseout of the benefit by 50 cents for each dollar of employment income, to be $84 billion. That is a large amount of money. But in context, the ad hoc Canada Emergency Response Benefit last year was estimated to have cost of $71 billion.
With the current extension, that price tag will likely surpass $84 billion. And the budget officer's estimates for a guaranteed livable income do not take into account expenditure reductions as other income support programs are replaced, nor do they take into account the reduction in health care and justice expenditure as poverty declines.
Ideally, to test all the questions around a guaranteed livable income, we should establish several pilot implementations. Involving communities in Saskatchewan, in Alberta and in Ontario would offer a pan-canadian set of experiences on which to build. Inclusion of First Nation and Métis communities and leadership will be essential as we move toward a national program.
The legislature of Prince Edward Island has created an opportunity for Canada to take a bold step forward.
Could it be possible for the Saskatchewan legislature to find all-party agreement for a pilot project here? Could the Parliament of Canada find all-party support for the guaranteed livable income pilot in P.E.I. and pilots elsewhere? One can hope.