Following her groundbreaking work resurrecting the data from Manitoba’s Mincome program, Evelyn Forget has been one of the pre-eminent voices on basic income. This updated edition of her 2018 primer, Basic Income for Canadians, includes up-to-the-minute analysis of various forms of basic or guaranteed income experiments conducted across decades and jurisdictions—and the real-life experiment we are living amid the coronavirus pandemic.
If critics have in the past derided basic income as a solution in search of a problem, it certainly found a worthy one in the economic impacts of COVID-19. With few conditions and broad eligibility, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) presented a unique comparison to a basic income for those who were unable to work due to illness or public health restrictions. Forget evaluates the successes and inevitable flaws of CERB and demonstrates ways in which a thoughtfully designed basic income model could prevent many Canadians from falling between the cracks.
Forget outlines the lessons from CERB alongside recent basic income pilot projects around the world and uses them to inform this potential model. The biggest takeaway—one we should heed with respect to the climate emergency—is that large-scale economic disruption both required and encouraged unprecedented innovation and urgency to develop a solution. And as Canada begins to fully reckon with the structural legacies of colonialism, racism and misogyny, it is imperative to recognize that different groups need different approaches to income supports. A basic income can and must be designed with equity in mind.
While skeptics persist in repeating well-worn objections, Forget addresses and debunks the many myths around what basic income does and doesn’t do. Claims that CERB enabled recipients to “eat cheezies and watch cartoons” (per an Alberta MLA) are discounted by the mountain of evidence Forget compiles here. Providing an income floor not only promotes long-term health and well-being but also generates systemic cost savings. The data demonstrates that opposition to basic income is ideological, not evidence-based.
This, however, is the one aspect of basic income that Forget doesn’t adequately address. Beyond the number-crunching and myth-busting are deeply rooted political tensions—a confrontation of values between individualism’s bootstraps and society’s social safety net. The biggest unanswered question is how to overcome the political reluctance surrounding basic income. While the pandemic helped to shift public perceptions as well as political discourse, when the emergency ends we must anticipate a degree of inertia—a political desire to return to “normal.” But, as Forget notes, we are past “normal”: precarity, the gig economy, automation and the potential for a lingering recession will all continue to affect the future of employment. For Albertans especially, the downturn in the oil and gas industry and the urgency of climate change presage a huge gap in employment prospects for energy-related occupations and the trades and services that support the sector. A basic income could be a vital part of a just transition to a lower-carbon economy.
To fully consider how a basic income guarantee could be implemented in Canada, we need to dig deep beneath the political narratives that underpin systemic inequality. Forget’s analysis underscores the flaws inherent in neoliberal, free-market capitalism, but she leaves many of these critiques implicit. Ultimately, a basic income is a patch for these cracks, not a long-term solution. While some models of basic income are more progressive than others, there is no guarantee that any particular model will be transformative in its application.
—Rebecca Graff-McRae is a research manager at the Parkland Institute and co-author of “A Basic Income for Alberta.”