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Pope Francis: 'This may be the time to consider a universal basic wage'

Pope Francis leads the Easter vigil Mass in St. Peter's Basilica with no public participation due to the outbreak of coronavirus at the Vatican
Remo Casilli I Reuters

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic Pope Francis says it might be time for some sort of universal basic income.

"This may be the time to consider a universal basic wage" to "acknowledge and dignify the noble, essential tasks" and to  "achieve the ideal ... of no worker without rights," Pope Francis said in a letter to the World Meeting of Popular Movements, an organization representing global grassroots organizations, published on Sunday via the Vatican.

The Pope acknowledged that for many workers, the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns are making it difficult, if not impossible, for people to earn money.

"Many of you live from day to day, without any type of legal guarantee to protect you," Pope Francis says in the letter. "Street vendors, recyclers, carnies, small farmers, construction workers, dressmakers, the different kinds of caregivers: you who are informal, working on your own or in the grassroots economy, you have no steady income to get you through this hard time ... and the lockdowns are becoming unbearable."

"The ills that afflict everyone hit you twice as hard," Pope Francis said to global laborers. 

Talk of a universal basic income (UBI), or regular cash payments with minimal or no requirements for receiving the money, has been brought to the forefront as social distancing and economic concerns have put millions of people out of work. 

In the U.S. alone 6.6 million Americans filed for first-time unemployment claims for the week ending April 4, the Labor Department reported Thursday. And according to the government's monthly jobs report, the U.S. lost 10% of its workforce in three weeks.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, several countries are giving residents seemingly free money: The first stimulus relief checks (for as much as $1200) in the United States went out this weekend; Canada has implemented a $1,439.80 ($2,000 CAD)-per month aid package, which Canadians can receive for up to four months; and Spain's minister for economic affairs has said the country is working to implement a kind of universal basic income payment too, to name a few.

UBI proponent Andrew Yang, who helped take the idea of free cash payments mainstream during his run for the Democratic nomination for U.S. president, called the Pope's mention of a universal payment "game-changing" in a tweet on Sunday. 

Still, some say while limited-run cash payments to individuals may make sense in this time of crisis, the idea of a universal basic income is still unrealistic in normal times because it's too expensive.

"It's entirely possible that the [U.S. government's] emergency cash payments ... might increase interest in Yang's [UBI] proposal, but there is little reason to think that they'll bring it any closer to being implemented," John McCormack, Washington D.C. correspondent at the conservative National Review magazine and a fellow at its National Review Institute, wrote in March.

But "It remains unlikely to ever happen for the same reason it was always unlikely to happen: A nation already drowning in red ink simply can't afford to almost double its annual budget permanently," he said.

Beyond UBI, Pope Francis also said the coronavirus pandemic could serve to dislodge humans' focus on money. 

"I hope that this time of danger will free us from operating on automatic pilot, shake our sleepy consciences and allow a humanist and ecological conversion that puts an end to the idolatry of money and places human life and dignity at the centre," Pope Francis writes.

"Our civilization — so competitive, so individualistic, with its frenetic rhythms of production and consumption, its extravagant luxuries, its disproportionate profits for just a few — needs to downshift, take stock, and renew itself."

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