A Guaranteed Basic Income for Canadians: Off the Table or Within Reach?
Pilot projects in the past that have experimented with a Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI) in Manitoba and Ontario, and a recent study of the feasibility of a GBI in British Columbia, indicate that provinces are not in an ideal position to successfully implement an affordable and effective GBI. However, a GBI implemented by the federal government, financed by eliminating the GST credit and lowering personal tax exemptions, could be both effective and affordable. It could also do so without requiring the elimination of those provincial social assistance programs that are more deeply targeted toward people’s needs. By using its revenue powers, the federal government could create more fiscal capacity for the provinces to provide other cash and in-kind social supports, allowing for greater provincial benefit targeting.
The federal government’s centrality in designing and implementing tax structures and collecting tax revenue make it singularly suitable for administering and delivering a GBI. Financing the GBI by eliminating the modest GST credit and lowering the current basic personal income tax exemption could provide a significant reduction in the rate, depth and intensity of poverty in Canada, without imposing an excessive tax burden on Canadians. If provinces use the GBI as a replacement for certain less-targeted provincial social assistance income transfers, the freed-up payments and reduced caseloads could also allow provinces to target more effectively those needs not addressed by the GBI.
The recent COVID-19 pandemic exposed longstanding gaps in Canada’s income- support frameworks, with lower-income workers facing exceptional economic vulnerability. At the same time, the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit proved edifying in terms of how to best design a basic-income program. In addition, the federal government’s experiences with the poverty-reducing impacts of the Canada Child Benefit, the Old Age Supplement and the Guaranteed Income Supplement have moved Canada closer than ever to a workable GBI. While it comes with additional costs, those costs will be less burdensome than many GBI skeptics might believe. They must also be put into perspective, by comparing them against the costs of current and, in many cases ineffective income transfers and, just as importantly, against the human cost of leaving more Canadians living in poverty.
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