CERB was simple, but universal basic income is not: expert panel

By Shannon Waters May 21, 2020

For nearly two years, an expert panel appointed by B.C.’s NDP government has been researching the possibilities and pitfalls of universal basic income. 
The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the issue, prompting the panel to share some of what it has learned ahead of the release of its final report, due out this summer.

Panel chair David Green from the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver School of Economics, Jonathan Rhys Kesselman from the School of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University, and Lindsay Tedds from the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary lay out key considerations for implementing basic income in an article published today.
The federal government’s Canada Emergency Response Benefit has proven “an effective tool” to support Canadians struggling to make ends meet due to lost jobs or reduced hours, the panel suggests, but broadening it to a form of basic income will be difficult.
“With the CERB, we know what the objective is: we’re trying to get emergency cash in people’s hands who have lost their employment income,” Tedds told BC Today in an interview. 
CERB has a specific motivation, but the same cannot be said of basic income programs. B.C.’s expert panel has reviewed more than 40 research papers on the issue from Canadian and international scholars as it seeks to grasp the implications of implementing some kind of basic income policy in B.C.

“There is no consensus as to what the purpose of the basic income is,” Tedds said. “Is it poverty reduction or poverty elimination? Is it a social dividend for caregiving? Is it to compensate for the selling of natural resources [as Alaska’s program is]?”

Hurdles abound, but pandemic is an ‘anchor point’
Defining the objective of a basic income program is a crucial step that must be taken before the program can even be designed, Tedds said. 
Logistical considerations — including how to determine eligibility for a basic income program, and assess and deliver payments — must be weighed along with how a basic income program would interact with other forms of social support. There is also the question of whether basic income will solve the government’s anti-poverty goals, especially when many residents living on the margins don’t have bank accounts or file taxes.  
Digging into all of the details can get “very, very complicated,” Tedds told BC Today, but the response to the coronavirus is doing some heavy lifting when it comes to getting the public to understand at least some of the concepts involved.
“The pandemic is providing us with an anchor point for nebulous concepts that people couldn’t really grasp before, in particular the idea of social solidarity,” Tedds said. “That is really what is underlying this idea of a basic income — it is that we are all in this together and we have to find a way to support each other.”
The wide societal understanding of what it means to “live on the edge” presents an opportunity Tedds and her fellow panelists hope to see realized.
B.C. isn’t the only province that has looked into basic income in recent years. On Prince Edward Island, a special legislative committee is exploring the feasibility of implementing some form of basic income to address poverty. In Ontario, the Progressive Conservative government abruptly cancelled a three-year basic income pilot program started by the Liberals after just one year.
But Tedds said the time for pilot programs has passed.
“We don’t need a pilot — the evidence is already all out there, we just need to compile it,” she said, pointing to the work her panel has been doing since July 2018.
For any policy makers toying with the idea of implementing basic income, Tedds has some succinct advice.
“Stop piddling around — if you’re going to do it, do it,” she told BC Today.