OP-ED: We need basic income and affordable housing now

This article first appeared on the Toronto Star. To view the article on the Star website, click here.

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Originally published on Mon., Sept. 21, 2020

Six months in, thousands of families have lost loved ones to COVID-19. The economic and social toll of the epidemic has been crushing. We have seen heroic efforts by front line workers and support workers in long-term care homes, shelters, hospitals, and food service providers. Millions have made sacrifices to help limit spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

But here’s another facet of the epidemic: COVID-19 has cruelly exposed the long-standing inequalities in our country. Data from public health units across the country show low income households and communities of colour being disproportionately harmed by COVID-19.

These outcomes should come as no surprise. Long before the pandemic, social disparities in our country were linked to major differences in life expectancy. For example, poverty and structural racism have driven twofold differences in avoidable deaths between affluent neighbourhoods and Black, Brown and Indigenous communities. People living without stable housing, on average, do not make it past their 50th birthday. Our fragmented health care system — however well-intentioned and howsoever it is reformed — has not and will never be able to bridge this divide. The solutions lie well upstream, in poverty reduction and affordable housing for all being our best medicine.

Poverty and income insecurity are intertwined here, and have long produced poor health outcomes. The latest Toronto Public Health Data shows low-income households making up more than 50 per cent of all COVID-19 cases. Furthermore, underpaid and racialized employees in long-term care homes were early victims and involuntary vectors, forced to move between homes just to earn enough to support their families with a differential burden on racialized women. The absence of affordable childcare and paid sick leave only compounded their risks and those of many others without a living wage and benefits.

Rolling back pandemic pay for essential workers seems positively perverse in the circumstances. Moreover, millions of low-income earners stand to be worse off after the transition from the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) to the Employment Insurance program. What would make far more sense is to parlay Canada’s largest unintended experiment in employment supports into a universal basic income program. Actual basic income experiments from other jurisdictions demonstrate meaningful improvements in physical and mental health, with none of the employment shirking forecasted by critics. Now, after all the talk about socioeconomic determinants of health, in Canada we now have a generational opportunity to lay new foundations for a healthier and fairer nation.

Housing is another key determinant of health that has come into focus during the epidemic. As The Star reported on August 2, lockdowns were seemingly effective in white affluent neighbourhoods, but communities that were underhoused or people without housing remained at risk and were infected at higher rates. Again, this is nothing new. As many as 30,000 in Canada were sleeping rough or in shelters before the pandemic. Creating temporary COVID-19 recovery sites for people and families experiencing homelessness is not a lasting solution. Instead, Canada’s governments need to act on recent reports that chart a way forward that addresses those communities most affected, among them youth, women, refugees, LGBTQ2S and BIPOC communities.

There are no half measures when it comes to the basic human right to shelter, and strong federal leadership is crucial to end homelessness in Canada.

To be sure, these social programs will require billions of dollars in public spending. But some of these funds are already flowing out in a complex web of programs for income security and housing support. For that matter, while Canadians pride themselves on their universal healthcare systems, there’s a real problem with our national claims about social fairness. Canada spends more per capita than many countries on health services, but our social spending per capita has lagged far behind our healthcare spending, starving vulnerable communities of resources and opportunity from coast to coast to coast.

Now after a summer lull, the epidemic as expected is regaining momentum. In Canada, we are counting the days until better treatments and a safe and effective vaccine becomes available. We know that lives depend on those advances. But while the epidemic continues, and long after it ends, poverty and homelessness will exactbe exacting a terrible toll on the health and prospects of millions in Canada.

We need to fix the holes in our social safety net now, providing housing for the homeless, and the dignity of a basic income for people living in poverty. After and during a pandemic, the goal of recovery must be for all not some.