COMMENTARY: Is there room for a better, fairer and just society in the ‘new normal?’ The Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition thinks so

Charlotte Hrenchuk, Bill Thomas & Hannah Zimmering

Everyone is talking about life after COVID-19 and to brace for a “new normal.” We’re being told that the old ways of social interaction and societal business are gone forever. We’re being told that the way we work, eat, and play will never be the same again. And if this is so, then we all play a part in creating our new reality. We will all have a say — or at least we ought to ensure that we do — in the new normal.

And this is the first big change in the new normal that the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition visions — the one where we all live in a fairer more just society. The first change is we all have a voice. Broad consultation across all the socio-demographic sectors of the people who live in Yukon is the very first tenet of the new normal. In the new normal, our community exists for everyone and we are all political equals. So before we introduce another stop gap measure program, before we build another institution, before we write another bylaw or government policy, we will give voice to community members and we’ll check it against this simple principle: is this the path to a fairer more just society? Is this a normal we all want to live in?

And since we’re working together to create a better post-COVID-19 reality, the Coalition would like to put forth a few other brave new ideas:

Terrible events sometimes can serve to shine a light on system failures and social inequities. For example, COVID-19 is showing us the incredibly flawed food security system in Yukon. It is true that many of us knew that there are people who need food banks. And it is also true that we knew some people need the food bank regularly. However, since COVID-19 there is a new dawning realization that the Yukon has a serious food security problem. More people need the food bank, the food supply chain is not nearly as flexible in responding to crisis as we need it to be, and there is a lack of coordination across the system to ensure that those who need affordable nutritious food are able to get it.

It took a global health pandemic to truly highlight that food banks, originally designed as a short-term stop gap measure more than 30 years ago, are an inadequate and inappropriate way of making sure everyone eats. From a Coalition view of new normal, food banks in the future don’t exist.

This isn’t about putting food bank employees out of work, or taking away an opportunity for community members to make annual donations, or even about not offering volunteer opportunities for youth. Those things are all nice, but we’d give them up in a second to have a new normal where food security and coordinated systems ensure that everyone eats without the need of a food bank.

In the new normal, we address the system inequities and all people — those on social assistance, the elderly, the girl working part time at the coffee shop – can afford to pay for the food they need.

The future has no food banks.

Our future does have basic annual income.

Did you know that if you or someone you love recently tapped into the CERB, that you are participating in a basic annual income experiment? The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) is a short-term experiment in basic annual income. What an incredible COVID-19 unintended benefit this is; an entire Canadian society getting to see first hand how a basic annual income might work to save the economy, to keep families intact, to save us from mortgage foreclosures, personal bankruptcies, and relying on the food bank. And so far, the very fabric of Canada has not unravelled.

COVID is helping us to realize that the way many of us are in financial trouble right now and need the government to ensure we have a basic minimum income to pay our bills and survive during a pandemic is a thing that is true for some of us all of the time. And if that is true then wouldn’t it be fair to have a basic annual income system that ensures that none of us ever (not just during pandemic times) must live in poverty?

There are many different models of basic annual income; some models propose the basic annual income as a replacement to all other social service payments (from disability to social assistance) while other models are graduated and build on the social systems already in place. There are pros and cons to each of them and none of them are a panacea to all of our social inequities. They can be tremendously helpful in helping people move up and out of poverty, providing a base from which everyone can choose their next steps.

For those who worry that basic minimum income will keep people from working, there’s this: assuming that a basic minimum income program would keep us from wanting to work or would keep us home is just an assumption. It devalues how being able to participate meaningfully in the workforce gives us pride, a sense of belonging to a place or community, and in some cases even our will to live. A basic annual income in fact helps people into work because it allows us to get out there working while ensuring that we will not fall below the poverty line while employed.

Right now in Canada nearly eight per cent of people are called the “working poor” — challenged to pay for their housing without being overcrowded or living in substandard housing and struggling to have enough money to eat without using the food bank or other charity. And these workers are the ones who are most at risk during a pandemic. We have been content to see them live in poverty and needing social welfare supports. A basic minimum income program says that people who are working — whether it’s the coffee shop down the street or the cashier at the box store — have the right to live above the poverty line; to work and live with dignity.

A new normal is coming our way; let’s make Yukon’s new normal one where everyone sits at the table and everyone eats.

If you’d like to know more about the work of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition, visit their website. Charlotte Hrenchuk, Bill Thomas and Hannah Zimmering are co-chairs of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition.