Why a universal job guarantee should be Justin Trudeau’s legacy

Pierre Trudeau ended his reign as Prime Minister of Canada with a walk in the snow. Yet by then he had removed the state from the bedrooms of the nation and established the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that has protected the most fundamental rights of Canadians for generations.

Brian Mulroney stepped down as Prime Minister with the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement that helped make Canada a strong global economy; the Goods and Services Tax which provided much-needed revenue to pay off government debts; and the Canada-United States Air Quality Agreement which dealt with acid rain. These political achievements would all strengthen Canada economically and environmentally for decades.

All governments must eventually disappear. And what about Justin Trudeau and his legacy as prime minister?

Without a defining signature legacy, the Trudeau government has so far spent hundreds of billions of dollars on measures to combat COVID-19, and risks straddling generations of Canadians with this debt.

Meanwhile, Canadians face a cost of living crisis with spiraling inflation, high interest rates and a looming recession. As interest rates dominate the headlines and a predicted recession looms, economic orthodoxy demands a fresh perspective and new ideas.

Trudeau could be bold and fundamentally change Canada for generations, as his father and Mulroney did.

A Universal Job Guarantee (UJG) may well be the flagship achievement Trudeau is seeking.

These guarantees provide jobs and income to citizens who are unable to find work on their own. A UJG would tackle fundamental social inequalities and poverty. It would achieve important national goals by stabilizing the economy through full employment and addressing persistent unemployment, improving economic productivity and acting as a hedge against inflation.

Government direct cash support programs can reduce the labor market supply of low-skilled workers as some people decide to stay home rather than work.

In contrast, a UJG would add meaning to people’s lives, improve health and well-being, ensure social cohesion and help the most vulnerable as tangible benefits of work.

A UJG would also generate revenue for the government through taxable income. This would reduce the cost of the program and encourage spending and investment in targeted sectors of the economy, such as the environment or infrastructure, providing a net benefit to generations of Canadians.

There are already programs that help people find fulfilling jobs, like the Canada Student Summer Work Programs, where the Canadian government subsidizes businesses to hire students, or other employment programs, like the construction of infrastructures for the last generations or the planting of trees. A universal job guarantee would build on these established programs and be difficult to undo (like universal health care in Canada) once Canadians see the benefits.

Other countries are already setting an example in Canada. In 2020, Austria launched the world’s first Universal Job Guarantee experiment, designed by economists at the University of Oxford.

Canada would do well to be bold with a UJG that builds on its existing programs – and Trudeau would finally have his legacy.

Daniel Tsai is a lecturer in business and law at Toronto Metropolitan University.

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