Sensible advice for waste-cutting Prime Minister [pension supplements]
TheStar.com – opinions/editorial opinion
Published On Mon Dec 20 2010. By Carol Goar, Editorial Board
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has a small problem on his hands. The efficiency expert he appointed to scrutinize government spending in search of waste, duplication and red tape has come up with an awkward recommendation.
In a report submitted to cabinet last month, Daniel Jean, who is in charge of the government’s administrative services review, proposed that low-income seniors be spared the paperwork of applying for a pension supplement worth up to $661.69 a month.
Thousands of needy seniors miss out on this benefit because they don’t apply. Some don’t realize they have to. Some can’t handle the paperwork because of language or literacy problems. Some are disabled by dementia or illness.
Ottawa has consistently ignored entreaties from seniors’ groups to send the payment automatically to pensioners living in poverty.
Now the Prime Minister is getting the same advice from the deputy minister leading his administrative services review.
Officially, Jean’s report is confidential. But the senior bureaucrat spoke at a recent Conference Board meeting called “Leading Change in Times of Constraint.”
Ottawa Citizen reporter Kathyrn May was there. She provided readers with a detailed précis of what Jean said.
He told delegates that eliminating the application process for the low-income pension supplement would be a “home run” in Ottawa’s drive to transform the way it delivers service to Canada. “We’re eliminating a business line,” he pointed out. “There is a huge efficiency gain and cost avoidance.”
Moreover, he said the proposal would ease the strain on the government’s aging computer system as baby boomers start turning 65.
What Jean didn’t mention was the cost. And therein lies the rub.
The government saves millions of dollars every year by quietly ignoring the fact that many impoverished seniors aren’t receiving the pension top-up to which they are entitled. It knows who they are, but chooses not to act.
This injustice came to light a decade ago at a social agency in Toronto’s downtown west side. Unsatisfied with merely alleviating the symptoms of poverty, St. Christopher House brought in a social policy expert to find permanent ways to improve its clients’ lives.
Richard Shillington, who had 30 years’ experience as a researcher and member of various government commissions, discovered that many elderly people couldn’t meet their basic needs. This bewildered him. They were eligible for both old age security (the universal benefit for Canadians 65 and over) and the guaranteed income supplement (for those in financial hardship.)
What he learned was that most of them hadn’t applied for the guaranteed income supplement. They were living on far less than they were entitled to receive.
Shillington got them the benefit, then tackled the issue of fixing the underlying problem. He and Susan Pigott, then-executive director of St. Christopher House, enlisted Frances Lankin at the United Way, some hard-nosed economists and as many seniors’ groups as they could to lobby Ottawa to send pension supplement automatically to low-income seniors.
Jean Chrétien went partway. He agreed to notify seniors who were eligible for the benefit. Now Harper is being advised to go the rest of the way.
Given his determination to cut spending, it is unlikely this proposal will have any appeal. But deep-sixing it could be tricky.
He could reject it at the cabinet table but, thanks to Daniel Jean, everyone would know he had deprived poor seniors of a benefit they are owed.
He could dismiss it as unworkable, but it isn’t. Jean has spelled out exactly how it could be done.
Or he could surprise everyone and accept it.
This is not the way Harper intended to launch his austerity regime. But it provides a rare glimpse of a national leader deciding whose belt he can afford to tighten.
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