One string is not a safety net – it’s a tightrope
That the COVID-19 crisis has exposed the cracks in our social safety net has become a truism. What people living in poverty and those working on the front lines of community service have known for years has now become impossible for the wider society to ignore.
We’re in a moment now where we agree that people in need of support should get it. That help should preserve people’s dignity and provide them with adequate means to support themselves and their families. That help should come quickly, and it should be simple to access.
What we haven’t agreed on is how to best achieve these goals.
Let’s start by agreeing that the best solution will be rooted in dignity, adequacy, and simplicity. And that these are the principles that should form the foundation of an effective social safety net.
The question is how to ensure that these principles are translated into actionable programs that bring us closer to our goals.
In recent weeks, many have called for a basic income as a way of ensuring that Canada’s response to the pandemic isn’t short lived. But what do we mean when we talk about a basic income?
Canada has a lot of experience and success with certain types of basic income programs. For example, targeted benefits for families with children (such as the Canada Child Benefit – CCB) and for seniors (such as Old Age Security – OAS) are basic income programs that use a negative income tax model. We’re not giving the same amount to everyone (also known as a demogrant); instead, benefits are delivered through the tax system and targeted to ensure that the most support goes to people with the lowest incomes.
If we already have targeted basic income programs for seniors and families with children, which most experts agree are working well, are calls for a basic income about filling the gap for groups who are not well served by current programs?
For decades, we’ve tied income support for working-age adults to employment. But we failed to evolve our programs even as low-wage, precarious work became a mainstay feature of our labour market. Relentless cuts to programs for working-age adults meant that the supports were rendered ineffective. Employment Insurance does not provide benefits for all those seeking work, and provincial/territorial social assistance programs are known best for their inadequacy, inefficiency, and punitive nature.
If, in response to these challenges, the push for a basic income leads to dignified and adequate supports for working-age adults, then it’s long overdue.
But if the idea is to simply replace current programs, without considering how we strengthen and improve them, then we need to consider another question.
Will a basic income help us achieve our goal of an effective social safety net?
As we worked to develop basic incomes for seniors and families with children, we didn’t build the necessary, and complementary, public systems needed to support these very people and families. Political and policy trade-off decisions were made in favour of developing income support programs, and the public largely accepted those decisions. The plight of seniors living in long-term care facilities in the midst of this pandemic is a direct consequence of years of underfunding this system. Many frontline care providers, underpaid and overworked, can only actually get to work if they have reliable childcare that serves their needs.
A net has many strands that work together to make it strong. While one strand may be frayed, its connection with the others helps compensate for this weakness. Similarly, many policy tools working together will make our social safety net strong. An over-reliance on one method of support can expose people already vulnerable to economic and labour market changes to even greater vulnerability, as successive governments change how benefit amounts are calculated based on their priorities.
As we pursue a dignified, simple, and adequate social safety net, we need to ensure that we are building and strengthening public services and systems at the same time. We need to be clear-eyed about what a basic income (or incomes) will do, and what it won’t do.
A basic income won’t pay for affordable housing or medicines. For that, we need basic public services. We need to invest in affordable housing and a pharmacare program.
A basic income won’t make for a fair labour market. For that, we need to ensure adequate wages and labour protections for workers. We also need to invest in dignified and adequate social assistance programs that are responsive to dramatic changes in income.
A basic income shouldn’t replace these things. If it does, we will have prioritized the principle of simplicity at the cost of dignity and adequacy. One string is not a net – it’s a tightrope. We should be wary of putting all our efforts into a tightrope at the expense of the net underneath.
For many, the immediate desire to return to a sense of “normalcy” from this pandemic is rooted in the idea of exercising their civil and political rights again. The right to move. The right to mobilize.
But civil and political rights cannot be fully realized independent of social and economic rights – you can’t have one without the other. This is a fundamental element of human rights.
The frailty of our social safety net shows us that we have not adequately realized the economic and social rights of Canadians. If we want to come out of this better than we were before, our economic and social rights – especially the right to social security – must be at the front and centre of our recovery.
If we’re not clear about what we mean by a basic income, we risk developing policies and programs that move us further away from realizing our economic and social rights. Instead of achieving the principles that are the foundation of a strong social safety net, we will have betrayed them.