The Trudeau Liberals appear to be warming to the idea of a guaranteed national minimum income as they search for ways to help Canadian workers adapt to an unsteady labour market.
A guaranteed minimum income means different things to different people, but at its core is a no-strings-attached payment governments provide instead of an assortment of targeted benefits.
What it costs in additional spending, the thinking goes, it makes up in reduced bureaucracy for both the government and recipients.
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos have argued that the Liberal-created Canada Child Benefit, among other measures, amounts to a guaranteed minimum income already.
But in an interview this week with The Canadian Press, Duclos said the current suite of federal programs could one day be enhanced to provide a minimum income of sorts to all Canadians, particularly those without children who aren’t eligible for federal benefits for families, seniors or the working poor.
“Whether this is going to be enhanced eventually to a broader guaranteed minimum income for all Canadians, including those without children that are not currently covered by a guaranteed minimum income at the federal level, I believe the answer is yes,” Duclos said. “At some point, there will be a universal guaranteed minimum income in Canada for all Canadians.”
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As for when, Duclos was less clear: “One day we will get there too, but that day has not yet arrived.”
Federal officials have considered the idea as one of a wide range of possibilities to reshape social-safety-net programs for a modern labour market marked by automation, more short-term “gig economy” jobs and a need for people to retrain several times in their working lives.
The thinking is the current suite of programs is outdated because it was designed for a workforce that needed help only at certain points, such as upon losing a full-time job, having children and retiring. Lifetimes of freelancing, contracts and multiple part-time jobs punctuated by returns to school weren’t in the model.
Trudeau, in a separate interview, pointed to his government’s various attempts at providing workers some stability that “can add up to something that is helpful like a guaranteed minimum income.”
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He spoke about changing employment insurance to make it easier to land benefits and creating the income-tested Canada Child Benefit; and looked ahead to the Canada Workers Benefit that will expand a Stephen Harper-era wage subsidy to boost the incomes of the country’s working poor.
Despite all that, Trudeau said a guaranteed income is one of the tools the government is looking at to help Canadians who are struggling.
“I don’t think I’d be speaking out of turn to say that it’s still something that is in the universe of all sorts of tools that we’re looking at on how to best help Canadians,” Trudeau said.
The parliamentary budget office has estimated federal spending would need to increase $43.1 billion annually to provide every low-income household with an average of $9,421, beefing up the $32.9 billion Ottawa already spends on support for low-income Canadians.
Before forging ahead with any new spending, the federal government would need buy-in from provinces, territories and municipalities, said Conservative critic Karen Vecchio.
Figures from Statistics Canada show those levels of government spent almost $69 billion in 2017 on programs to help children, the elderly, those with low incomes, the unemployed and people with disabilities.
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“In order for it to work, you would need to overhaul the entire system,” Vecchio said of a minimum income. “It’s not that it’s a bad idea by any means, but we have to look at the cost and is this going to be beneficial to Canadians in the long run?”
Decades after the first test of “mincome” in Manitoba, Ontario’s previous Liberal government launched a pilot project last year, but Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government cancelled it shortly after coming to office.
Trudeau and Duclos were clear the federal government won’t revive Ontario’s pilot, saying it isn’t Ottawa’s job to step in when provinces change or eliminate programs.
But the federal Liberals could offer, as part of an election platform, to help finance future provincial tests so the country to figure out whether the idea works, said Hugh Segal, a former Conservative senator who helped design the cancelled Ontario program.
The pledge could pull votes away from the New Democrats and Conservatives, and offer cash-strapped provinces an avenue to cut costs, Segal said.
“Part of what you do when you’re in government is you try to bring forward policies that will make life better for Canadians, make the economy more productive, and that is affordable,” he said. “But you also want to set up the odd little roadblock and detour for your primary opponents and I think there’s a good chance the primary opponents would fall into the trap.”