A simple solution: Seniors living in poverty

TheStar.com – opinion/editorials
Published On Mon Dec 27 2010.

Unthinkable as it seems, 40 years ago in Canada impoverished seniors ate dog food to stay alive. Their plight made headlines when three feisty septuagenarians took a bus from Toronto to Ottawa and marched on the office of then health minister John Munro to demand enough to live on.

Shamed into acting, the government of Lester Pearson created the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), a pension top-up for seniors whose income fell below the poverty line.

It was one of the most successful social programs in Canadian history. Over four decades, it reduced the poverty rate among seniors from 36.9 per cent to 2.9 per cent.

But the GIS had a flaw: seniors had to apply for it annually. Some didn’t and some couldn’t.

Lately, that flaw — plus the rising cost of food, electricity and heat — has pushed thousands of seniors back into poverty. As of 2008, 5.8 per of Canadians over 65 fell below StatsCan’s low-income cut-off.

There is a simple step Prime Minister Stephen Harper could take to reverse this trend — a change his own advisers are recommending: send the GIS automatically to every eligible senior.

Anti-poverty groups have been urging Ottawa to do this for a decade, to no avail. But now the same advice is coming from the panel Harper set up to identify waste and inefficiency. Its pre-budget report is sitting on the Prime Minister’s desk.

The bureaucrat in charge of that review, Deputy Minister Daniel Jean, described the proposal at a recent conference as a “home run” in the government’s drive to transform the way it delivers services to Canadians. It would eliminate needless paperwork, reduce administrative costs, ease the strain on the government’s aging computer technology and improve service, he pointed out.

And it would be easy. Canada Revenue Agency could flag seniors whose income tax returns indicate they qualify for the GIS. That would spare them the cumbersome process of applying and spare the government the task of putting new data (which it already has) into the system every year.

The biggest benefit — which Jean did not mention — is that every eligible senior would receive the pension supplement. At the moment, thousands of elderly Canadians don’t because they aren’t aware they have to apply, they can’t speak English or French well enough to fill out the form, or they are disabled by dementia or illness.

This reform wouldn’t eliminate poverty among seniors. But it would be an important step in the right direction.

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