Falling through the cracks. I always worry about those who fall through the cracks, especially in times of disruption. While living for nine weeks of self-isolation, self-distancing and lockdown has taught us much about our ability to be resilient, to adapt and to change, we have also learned how vulnerable we are, how dependent we are on each other. Balancing the need for flattening the curve and restoring the economy is a delicate matter. While many continue to work from home, we know that a great number of us have been laid off or lost jobs because of COVID-19. The unemployment numbers have risen to a sobering 13% in April.
We are blessed to live in a country where financial assistance is being provided by the government for those who have lost employment or have been adversely affected by this pandemic. At the same time, there are still many in our society who are not eligible to receive this support because they do not meet the criteria established by the programs. While the patchwork of subsidies introduced by the government has brought relief and hope, still people fall through the cracks.
It is this reality that has prompted a renewed interest in the Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI). On May 3, 2020, an open letter was signed by 41 Anglican and ELCiC bishops urging the government to implement a basic income. Members of our College of Bishops were signatories of the letter. We recognize that a basic income is not a panacea; it would need to be enough to lift people out of poverty (at least more than current social assistance rates). It would also work best alongside access to affordable services like healthcare, housing, childcare, education and public transit so that people can meet their basic needs. Having more cash in hand doesn’t help if housing or childcare isn’t affordable. But, like quality public services, a well-designed basic income program is an expression of the fact that we are “all in this together,” that we all benefit when there is greater equity in our society.
Pilot projects in Manitoba in the 1970s and in Ontario in recent years have shown that basic income recipients reported much better physical and mental health outcomes, which is unsurprising as poverty is one of the most important social determinants of health. In both pilot projects, most people who were working continued to work as much or more than before. Some used the income to look for better jobs or expand their business opportunities. Where people worked less, it was to care for dependent family members or to enroll in educational opportunities.
At an ISARC (Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition) forum last November, a Hamilton woman who had participated in Ontario’s Basic Income Pilot Project said, “Basic Income gave me my life back.” Trying to survive below the poverty line is a full-time endeavour – it takes all your energy. She was able to spend time with friends and family. This contributed to strengthening her relationships and building social connections. On social assistance, even meeting for a coffee date was often beyond her means, and she experienced profound loneliness. Other former pilot project participants concurred: social assistance “will keep you alive, but without dignity or community.”
In baptism, we are called to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being. Our covenant calls us to strive for, to aim for, to struggle for, to aspire for the sake of the other, especially those who have fallen through the cracks.
The Ontario government has indicated that next week, week 10, some restrictions will be lifted so that certain businesses will be permitted to open again. While we anticipate that a return to our church buildings will be some weeks away, this news offers a glimmer of hope. Before we go back, before we hurry back from whence we have come, let us strive to bring with us those who have slipped through the gaps. If you feel moved to support this Guaranteed Basic Income initiative, we encourage you to write to your local MP. Thank you for prayerfully considering this invitation.
Yours in Christ
The Rt. Rev. Andrew Asbil
Bishop of Toronto