Harper’s unlikely social breakthrough [family caregiver tax credit]

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Thu Dec 15 2011.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

The pickings have been slim this year for Canadians looking to their government for help, support or relief.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s watchwords are restraint, austerity and cutbacks. Most premiers and mayors have followed his lead, leaving nowhere for the unemployed, poor, hungry and hopeless to turn.

But, against this dismal backdrop, one social innovation did make it onto the national agenda. Approximately half a million caregivers — people who voluntarily look after infirm spouses, frail, elderly parents and children with serious health problems — will soon get Canada’s first Family Caregiver Tax Credit.

It is extremely modest: less than $1 a day. It is regressive; high-income caregivers get maximum credit, low-income caregivers qualify for little or nothing. And it is selective; 82 per cent of the 2.7 million Canadians who sacrifice their income, career prospects and sometimes their health to care for loved ones, aren’t eligible.

Still, it’s the first acknowledgement by the federal government that caregivers play a vital role in providing low-cost, round-the-clock health care.

Harper, who announced the tax credit last spring, says it exemplifies his government’s support for families. His critics claim he was motivated by political expediency.

The governing Conservatives tabled their proposal five months after the opposition Liberals unveiled their Family Care Plan, meant as one of the main planks of Michael Ignatieff’s election platform. The Liberal initiative was more generous than Harper’s ($1 billion a year, as opposed to $160 million) and more inclusive, but unlike its Tory counterpart, lacked legislative weight.

Voters cast their ballots on May 2. They re-elected Harper with a stronger mandate. He reintroduced his proposal. It just cleared the Senate and awaits royal assent.

Knowing they had little chance of changing the government’s mind — but hoping to plant a few seeds for the future — Sherri Torjman and Ken Battle of the Caledon Institute of Social Policy made a thoughtful submission to the Senate committee on national finance this week.

They weren’t confrontational. They simply outlined what it would take to make a real difference for caregivers and showed how the tax break could be turned into the first plank of a strategy for an aging population.

The current measure has four basic flaws, they said:

• It is a non-refundable tax credit, meaning recipients don’t get a payment from Ottawa. They get a reduction in their income tax bill.

• The size of that deduction depends on their income rate. Those in the wealthiest tax bracket (29 per cent) get the most. Those in the middle brackets (22 per cent and 26 per cent) get less. Those in the bottom bracket (15 per cent) get a minimal amount. And those too poor to pay taxes get nothing.

• It doesn’t extend the six weeks of compassionate care leave workers can now take.

• And it doesn’t take into account the heavy expenses caregivers incur — everything from an elderly parent’s rent, food and drug dispensing fees to a gravely ill child’s medical equipment.

The Caledon duo didn’t call for a substantial increase in spending — that would have been futile. They highlighted affordable changes the government could make.

First, they suggested the tax credit be made refundable, providing caregivers with cash payment, not a reduction in their tax bill. Next, they asked that assistance be targeted at the low-income caregivers who need it most. Third, they asked that the existing medical expense tax credit be increased to reflect the cost of providing care at home. Finally, they urged the Conservatives to offer caregivers more paid leave.

The odds of any of this happening soon are minimal. But caregivers have a foundation on which to build. They have a voice. And they have hope.

For that, Harper deserves thanks.

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