With 2020 drawing to a close, we reached out to some of our first FPR contributors to ask them to look back on what they wrote in the early days of the pandemic and reflect on what’s happened since then.

Ken Boessenkool’s original piece about emergency income support ran on April 5, 2020. You can see the rest of our Q&A series here.

 

Q: Why did you think federal income support was a policy priority at the beginning of the pandemic? Do you still feel that way? Why or why not?

A: A huge number of Canadians were losing income at a rapid rate. It was clear that they would need rapid income support and that existing programs were unfit to deliver on the scale and breadth that would be required.

My view on that has not changed because the government did, if not precisely what I recommended, then certainly something consistent with it. They put in place an easily accessible program that replaced income across the wide swath of Canadians who lost income.

 

Q: You called for a Crisis Basic Income of $2,000 for all Canadians who filed an income tax form in 2019, to be clawed back on next year’s tax form. What actually happened?

A: The government did not do exactly what I recommended. But they came close. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) was given on a “trust but verify” basis where “verify” meant that next year’s tax form would be the opportunity to collect any overpayments.

The government actually managed to deliver a more targeted and application-based program much more quickly than I (and many others) thought possible. I believe I was the first to propose $2,000 per month so I was pretty surprised when the CERB proposed precisely that amount.

 

Q: What expectations about the pandemic did you have that contributed to your recommendations? Did they come to pass?

A: There were worries about the administrative ability of the federal government to deliver a targeted program like CERB. That was one of the primary reasons why I proposed a universal benefit. In the earlier days of CERB, the repeated modifications to the program to address people that were missed, plus the much delayed and weaker rollout of the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), suggested that concerns about administrative capacity and delays in delivering benefits may have been justified.

In the end, the CERB was an astounding success overall, and it turned out those worries were misplaced. But had the CERB rolled out as poorly as the CEWS program, we would all be wishing that the government delivered a universal Crisis Basic Income instead of trying to deliver an application-based and more targeted CERB.

All of that is another way to say that, at least when it comes to CERB, the government far exceeded my expectations. Which in this case is a very good thing.

 

Q: If the policy approach you recommended was pursued, how do you think it has worked out? If not, how do you think it would have compared to the approach that was eventually pursued?  

A: I think if the government would have rolled out a universal Crisis Basic Income in those early months and then used some time to get the other programs (CERB, CEWS and others) better designed and targeted, we would have potentially avoided some of the early pitfalls and redesigns of the CERB.

It would have been more expensive than what actually rolled out, and non-tax filers would still have needed an application portal to get the universal benefit, but it would have worked fine and perhaps made for a smoother rollout of the CEWS as well as a more targeted CERB.

I don’t think that would have been better than the path chosen by the government, but it was a path with less risks and it certainly wouldn’t have turned out worse.

 

Q: What should policy-makers’ priorities be in this space in the coming months? 

A: They need to do an orderly rollback of the CERB once we get past the second wave and start to get vaccines into a critical number of Canadians. Also, much care will be needed in collecting overpayments, and even potential fraud, from these quickly rolled-out and generous programs.

 

Q: What policy position or assumption did you hold heading into 2020 that has been most challenged by the pandemic?

A: That government cannot move big and quickly to deliver income support.

 

Q: Finally, it’s time to share a plug: What’s a new information source, advocacy campaign or group, book, etc., that you discovered this year that you think more people in the policy community should know about?

A: First Policy Response was an excellent source of information, as was the C.D. Howe Institute and Max Bell School of Public Policy. But the best is just following all the authors on Twitter where much of this debate played out in real-time. Nearly everything that I (and many others) wrote for these outlets came from an exchange on Twitter. Twitter is a terrible platform, except when it isn’t. And it wasn’t if you were following the right people during the pandemic. 

Ken Boessenkool is the McConnell Professor of Practice at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University and Research Fellow at C.D. Howe Institute.

 

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