A smart social policy innovation for lean times

TheStar.com – Opinion/EditorialOpinion
Published On Wed Nov 24 2010.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

Skepticism ran high in the mid-1990s when Ken Battle, president of the Caledon Institute, a small social policy think-tank, said he could design a new benefit that would lift children of out poverty, free them of the welfare stigma and break the intergenerational dependency cycle.

He delivered his plan. Ottawa and the provinces discussed it, amended it and eventually adopted it. In 2007 the National Child Benefit was born. It turned out to be the biggest social innovation in 30 years. Now Battle and his colleagues at the Caledon Institute hope to do it again. They’ve just released a discussion paper entitled A Basic Income Plan for Canadians with Severe Disabilities.

It urges policy-makers to simplify the current hodgepodge of tax deductions, welfare payments and disability benefits into a single national program that provides Canadians who are too disabled to work with an annual stipend of $12,160; a refundable tax credit of $2,000 a year and the equipment and services they need (wheelchair, dialysis equipment, portable oxygen, personal-care attendant, visiting homemaker).

“It would be the first major progress in over half a century against the scourge of deep poverty pervasive among people with disabilities,” Battle and his three co-authors (Michael Mendelson, Sherri Torjman and Ernie Lightman) contend.

Their proposal would cost the federal government approximately $5 billion a year and save the provinces about $2.6 billion a year for a net public outlay of $2.4 billion. Right now, it looks like a long shot:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made it clear he intends to retrench, not spend, until Ottawa’s $45 billion deficit is eliminated. Moreover, he regards social policy as a provincial responsibility.

The scheme falls far short of what disability advocates want: a comprehensive income security program for all 2.5 million Canadians with disabilities.

It would be divisive. Only the poorest and most seriously disabled would benefit. Those who were mildly or moderately impaired — about 60 per cent — would be bypassed.

It could trigger a federal-provincial turf battle, especially in Quebec.

But many of the same objections were raised 15 years ago when the National Child Benefit was proposed. Now, as then, there are hopeful glimmers.

Last week, an all-party parliamentary committee on poverty reduction recommended that the government create a “basic income program” for people with disabilities. (The Conservative members of the committee supported the objectives of the report, but expressed strong misgivings about the cost of its recommendations.)

Last year, a Senate committee proposed a basic income guarantee for people with disabilities. (Harper rejected the report, but Liberal Senator Art Eggleton and Conservative Senator Hugh Segal continue to fight for its ideas.)

Canadians with disabilities have emerged from the shadows, racking up medals in the Paralympics, speaking in public forums, breaking stereotypes.

And the Conservative government has taken a few small steps. It created a new Canada Disability Savings Bond and it has enriched several tax benefits for people with disabilities and their caregivers.

The authors of the Caledon paper believe there is enough of a consensus for a national debate. Most taxpayers want their money used to improve lives, not perpetuate misery, they submit. Most politicians — even the most fiscally conservative — recognize that it is offensive to tell a person with a severe disability to get a job. The benefit is carefully targeted. And the cost is not outlandish.

“It may be that aspects of our proposal will be found wanting and other options will be brought forward. If so, we will still see our paper as having successfully fulfilled its mission,” the authors conclude.

(The discussion paper is available at caledoninst.org, under “what’s new”.)

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