Does the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) mean the federal government is paying people to not work during the COVID-19 pandemic? Does this prove that a universal basic income would cause a mass exodus from workplaces and weaken our economy?
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister seems to think so. I’m sure many agree with him.
Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is often used as an indicator of economic and social well-being. GDP basically measures how much money is being exchanged.
I was laid off in March, so what I’ve done since then doesn’t count for GDP, although I have bought lots of groceries.
The CERB has helped me explore how I can benefit society beyond paid work. I want to share what I have been able to do without worrying about money:
• Instead of job-hunting, I’m planning a day in my neighbourhood where residents can connect over music at a safe distance.
• I’ve also applied to volunteer with Storytelling Alberta. I hope to share stories with seniors over the phone. Again, I can do this because I don’t need to worry about income while laid off.
• Because my partner is still working, the CERB provides more than we need to pay the bills. We’ve increased our charitable giving to show gratitude for the financial support, and care for our community.
• With support coming in, I can maintain the savings I have and go back to school this fall. I have applied for a program in therapeutic recreation, so I can help seniors stay happy, healthy and socially connected.
I know I have a lot of privilege. Even having money saved up is not the norm. I’m grateful, and want to live generously. The CERB has allowed me to pursue that, and a future universal basic income, or similar program, would free me to do more things I find valuable, with less concern for whether, or how much, I get paid.
A basic income would certainly change the way people work. But it would also change the way people prioritize relationships, volunteering and caring for each other. Some might work part-time, so they could be with their kids more. Others might spend an hour gardening instead of driving an hour to work. We could find richness in ways well beyond GDP.
To some, the CERB is a statistic. It’s a massive government debt with no plan for paying it back. I would encourage you to see the CERB as a collection of stories.
My story is one example of how life-giving the CERB has been for Canadians in this difficult time. Beyond what I’ve listed above, I struggle with anxiety and depression, and appreciate that with this support I can simply stay home and rest if I need to.
The CERB also represents an opportunity for political engagement as Mennonites. In our churches, we proclaim values like social justice, mutual support and simple living. The CERB shows how policies and spending programs can bring our values to life in the public sphere.
While Mennonite history and theology also show hesitance around state politics, we cannot let theological hang-ups stop us from actively supporting measures that could change so many lives. Political engagement is not the only way to live out our values, but it is important because of how many people, especially the most vulnerable, are impacted by government decisions.
We should be sceptical about the potential for states and governments, captive to the whims of voters and the lust for power, to act for justice. We should absolutely never confuse the Crown of Canada with the Kingdom of God. But we should, at every opportunity, encourage the best possible use of power for what good it can achieve.
I am incredibly grateful for what the CERB has given me. Please remember that my story is not only personal. It’s political. I am in this position largely because of a specific government policy. Policies matter and, as Mennonites, we need to speak up for policies that promote social justice.
Mennonite theology says little about GDP. It says a lot about caring for each other. Let’s keep that in mind when we hear about governments paying people not to work.
Jonas Cornelsen lives in Calgary. Jonas graduated from Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg in 2016 with majors in political studies, and communications and media. He wrote his undergraduate thesis on Anabaptist political theology. He attends Calgary Inter-Mennonite Church, where his partner is the community care pastor.