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Canada is in the midst of an unplanned and massive universal basic income experiment. We are spending $40 billion (and counting) to provide basic monthly income via direct payments to Canadians. This effectively means Canadians are not working in their jobs but are getting paid by the government to stay home.
An aspect often forgotten when discussing universal basic income is the importance of the job itself.
The COVID-19 pandemic is the catalyst for this and I fully agree that staying home has been the right thing to do. There will be future debates about government’s actions during this crisis and, more importantly, how we are going to pay for them. There will also be debate about universal basic income with voices touting the pros and cons. One thing is certain: having guaranteed monthly income has caused people to stay home even when they had an option to work.
The late Ronald Reagan famously said: “The best social program is a job”. I realize this statement is overly simplistic since not every person is always capable of working. But the basic premise is still correct for most people, most of the time. Why is that? Why do people need work?
The most obvious purpose of a job is to provide income. But a job provides far more than that. A job teaches work ethic, useful for many aspects of life. A job provides routine, meaning and purpose. A job offers challenges and causes growth. A job provides important social connections along with physical and/or mental exercise.
People who lose their jobs experience grief, uncertainty and self-doubt. Not having a job causes people to feel like they aren’t productive, like they are falling behind their friends and lacking purpose in life. Not having a job can exacerbate mental health problems which can lead to depression, alcohol and drug abuse and even suicide.
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians has done research on the health benefits of work. Their findings are clear; work is good for health and well-being. Professor Sir Mansel Aylward stated, “long-term worklessness is one of the greatest known risks to public health.” Their findings also show that not working negatively impacts the absent worker as well as their families. Children of absent workers will also experience decreased mental and physical health. The increase of self-esteem, purpose, and routine generated from employment have a positive impact on individuals and their families.
Arthur Goldsmith, PhD and Timothy Diette, PhD conducted a study and concluded that long term unemployment has significant impacts on mental health. Their report suggested that public policies should be aimed at programs that reduce short and long-term unemployment and offer mental health supports for individuals experiencing long-term unemployment. It does not take a psychologist to understand the impacts of unemployment on mental health… we are currently living it!
Does a universal basic income lead recipients to work less? Some of the most comprehensive studies were conducted in the 1970s with thousands of participants over a period of years. These studies found that in all cases, participants worked fewer hours when they were given unconditional money. For married couples, men worked 9 percent fewer hours and women 20 percent fewer hours on average. Single moms worked 25 percent less on average.
Even more telling is the Trudeau government’s current experiment. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) has proven to be far more popular than the government anticipated. Businesses in my riding are telling me that it is becoming difficult to convince people to leave the CERB program and return to work. In fact, the Liberals have realized their legislation needs to be fixed. They now want to require people to return to work if they are asked by their employer or face penalties.
The government has acknowledged that some people will not choose to work if a universal income option is available. Long term universal basic income will reduce people’s desire to work. It is also economically expensive and poses risks to the mental and physical health of Canadians. As a result, the government is working hard to encourage people to get off CERB and back to work.
If our goal is to improve quality of life, we must offer programs that encourage people to work. Yes, we need supports like childcare. Yes, we need to help folks who need it. However, taking away the drive to work will create unintended negative consequences.
Government policies should promote long-term employment; not universal income schemes that allow employable individuals to stay at home.
I am not in favour of universal basic income. Businesses and charities are struggling to find workers. Government programs should be matching Canadians with available jobs, not just providing billions in aid.
Brad Redekopp is the Member of Parliament for Saskatoon West.