Majority government, majority social policy

Canada.com – news/opinion
May 21, 2011.   By Michael J. Prince, Times Colonist (Victoria)

“In communities across our country there are seniors struggling to pay their bills each month. Often they are women; often they are widowed. They worked hard their whole lives for their families and communities, but lack any pension income.”

-Here for Canada, Conservative Platform 2011

With a majority government in Ottawa, over the next four years the Harper Conservatives have an opportunity to establish majority social policy.

A majority social policy agenda would include programs and tax measures that address widely shared needs, not only niche initiatives for targeted groups but also mainstream services. Majority social policy recognizes common concerns of Canadians generally alongside those of particular marginalized groups, such as people with physical and mental disabilities and low-income seniors.

A new Parliament will soon begin and the 2011 budget, introduced before the federal election, is to be reintroduced, apparently in virtually the same form. An opportunity exists to rethink at least some of the promises in that proposed budget and to formulate initiatives more in keeping with popular and widespread needs of Canadians.

Consider the promise for increasing financial support for Canada’s seniors, especially those seniors living on their own.

The Conservatives said they would enhance the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors who rely almost exclusively on the Old Age Security and GIS.

The promise was that, effective this July 1, eligible seniors would receive additional annual benefits of up to a maximum of $600 for a single senior and a maximum $840 for couples.

This well-meaning and positive-sounding measure targets modest benefits to just some of the most vulnerable seniors across Canada.

It is an example of minority social policy thinking.

Of the 4.8 million seniors in Canada, 1.6 million receive the GIS because of their low-income circumstances.

The proposed increase in the GIS is to improve the financial security of 680,000 seniors or about 42 per cent of low-income seniors. Most of these seniors, however, will receive less than the $600 for a single senior or $840 for couples. In fact, among seniors who do receive the GIS, only 10 per cent or about 164,000 receive the maximum benefit.

Therefore, the Conservative pledge to improve the financial security of Canadian seniors will be of no help to 58 per cent of lowincome seniors; of fractional help to 32 per cent; and of full benefit to only 10 per cent of senior citizens struggling for a dignified retirement.

Tax relief usually is welcome when people actually have the financial resources in the first place (employment or investment income, private pensions, retirement savings and other assets) to keep more of their money in their pockets. For the many lowincome seniors, and nonseniors alike in Canada, additional tax relief is immaterial to improving their income security.

Measured as after-tax low income, the poverty rate in 2008 for senior men was 12 per cent and 17 per cent for senior women. With these relatively high and recently rising rates of poverty, the GIS continues to be a crucial source of income protection and support for a considerable segment of seniors in Canada.

The GIS increase announced in March means that most seniors who receive the maximum benefit are still living far below the poverty line.

Political slogans like “increasing the freedom of Canadians to spend their own money on their own priorities,” ring hollow to those with little money, and to those who do not really figure in the Economic Action Plan. Such targeted tax relief to most seniors is minority social policy reform.

With the 2011 budget, the Harper government has a second chance to lay out a much more adequate and multi-year plan for tackling poverty among older women and men in Canada.

The initial proposal, set out in March, was a tentative step in the right direction.

In the new political landscape of majority government, senior citizens living in poverty need majority action.

Michael J. Prince is the Lansdowne Professor of Social Policy at the University of Victoria.

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