COMMENTARY: CERB did its job, but many Canadians say it’s time to move on

The Canada Emergency Response Benefit, or CERB (you can decide if it is a hard or soft C), is the Government of Canada’s primary income support program for those directly affected by COVID-19. It pays up to $2,000 per month to each approved applicant.

So far, more than 8 million Canadians have submitted applications. While there is no definitive number on the total number of Canadians relying on CERB to get them through the crisis, it is likely not shy of the number who applied.

The federal government has already said its focus was on getting money out the door as opposed to vigorously screening applicants.

Read more: Phase out CERB payments, improve COVID-19 spending transparency, Senate report says

Just like the number of applicants, every aspect of CERB is unprecedented: from the number of families it has helped; to the amount of money involved; to the speed with which it was implemented by Canada’s public service.

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Also unprecedented is the level of public approval CERB has enjoyed.

A strong majority (86 per cent) agrees CERB has done a good job of preventing financial disaster for many Canadians. We don’t often see Canadians agreeing like this to anything their governments do.

Nonetheless, just as every dog has its day, so does every government program. Canadians are now turning the corner on CERB. Half of us believe CERB should be winding down at the soonest possible opportunity.

The federal government has picked up on this shift in the public mood and is telegraphing to CERB recipients that they need to prepare to go back to work or move to on to another form of income assistance.

An important point, though, is that the people who are least likely to support winding down CERB are those most likely to be relying on it — those in more precarious employment situations.

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These include younger workers, lower-income workers, and those with less formal educations. Those who most want to see the program wind down are their opposites — older, higher-income Canadians with more formal education.

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Along with the growing desire to see CERB wrapped up, we are now seeing concern emerge with how CERB has been used by some recipients. What makes something strong can also make it weak.

In this instance, one of the strengths of CERB was the speed with which it was brought to life.

But anything done quickly can leave loose ends. For example, not everyone who received CERB payments was entitled to get them. The government was prepared to live with this, the public not so much.

CERB is a big enough program that most Canadians are likely to know someone in their circle who could have coloured outside the lines on their CERB application. It’s not surprising then that a majority (63 per cent) of Canadians believe CERB has been misused.

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For those who have abused the program, there is little mercy. Eight-five percent of Canadians want them to pay a fine.

READ MORE: 85% of Canadians believe fraudulent CERB users should be fined, Ipsos poll says

Speed can lead to fraud and it can also lead to unintended consequences. It is difficult to anticipate how people will react to a new program, especially one that was designed and rolled out as quickly as CERB has been.

When it came to CERB, it appears the government assumed workers would have a built-in preference to return to work over receiving income assistance.

Most Canadians are wondering if that’s how it has worked out. A strong majority (72 per cent) believe CERB has allowed many Canadians not to go back to work when they should. This is one more reason most Canadians want the program to be wrapped up.

Finally, will CERB have a legacy? Maybe.

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For the first time, we are now seeing a public consensus building for a universal income program. Universal income programs, which can go by many names, have long been a favourite topic for policy wonks. These are programs through which members of the public are paid by the government whether they work or not.

If your eyes just crossed when you read this, you are not alone. Money for nothing tends not to sit right with many Canadians.

But we now have an example of a popular universal income program Canadians believe has worked. Indeed, 58 per cent think a universal income program is worth considering after CERB.

This is something to build on. Let’s see what the party platforms say about it in the next federal election. I have the feeling it will make an appearance.

Darrell Bricker is CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs and the author of ‘Next: Where to Live, What to Buy, and Who Will Lead Canada’s Future’ (Harper Collins, 2020).

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