Spectre of poverty stalks seniors

TheStar.com – Opinion – Spectre of poverty stalks seniors
September 23, 2009.   Carol Goar

No matter how grim the poverty statistics got, there was always one bright spot in the picture. Very few Canadians over the age of 65 were in financial hardship.

Politicians boasted about this social policy achievement at home and abroad. Low-income advocates held it up as proof that governments could lift people out of poverty if they made it a national priority.

Canada’s performance was remarkable. Between 1971 and 1995, it cut the rate of poverty among seniors from 36.9 per cent to 2.9 per cent.

What no one – or almost no one – noticed was this success story was starting to unravel.

The Conference Board of Canada delivered the bad news in its latest annual report card on Canada.

“Poverty rates among seniors doubled between 1995 and 2005, which is disconcerting because we take such pride in having conquered seniors’ poverty,” said Anne Golden, president of the Ottawa-based think-tank. “And when the data for the current time period become available, we can expect this trend to persist.”

This revelation came as no surprise to home care workers, church volunteers and organizers of charities such as Meals on Wheels. They knew what was going on.

The New Democratic Party was aware of the slippage, too. Its 36 MPs had noticed a worrisome increase in calls from older constituents facing eviction or cutting back on food and medicine to keep their homes.

The party’s pension critic, Wayne Marston (Hamilton East-Stoney Creek), embarked on a cross-country listening tour last spring. He wrapped it up in Edmonton last weekend.

“Seniors feel invisible to their government,” he said. “Far too many are just one crisis away from a financial catastrophe.”

In June, the NDP introduced a motion in Parliament calling on the government to “expand and increase the Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement to ensure all Canadians can count on a dignified retirement.”

It passed unanimously. But nothing changed.

Since then, the NDP has made retirement security one of its top priorities. Leader Jack Layton says his party will not keep supporting Stephen Harper’s minority government unless there is action on this issue.

Many Canadians don’t see what the problem is. The poverty rate for seniors (5.9 per cent) is still much lower than the child poverty rate (15.1 per cent) or the rate for working-age adults (12.2 per cent).

But it is climbing more rapidly than for any other age group at a time when the population is greying.

One of the reasons is that Ottawa now “claws back” old-age security (OAS) benefits from taxpayers with retirement savings. This leaves them vulnerable to market swings.

A second reason is that the cost of electricity and home heating fuel has risen faster than the consumer price index. This means OAS payments and other seniors’ benefits don’t really keep pace with the cost of living.

A third reason is that the paperwork required to obtain old age security, pension and survivor’s benefits has become intimidatingly complex. A significant number of older Canadians either don’t apply or don’t fill out their forms properly. They are also missing out on tax breaks targeted at seniors.

A final reason is the issue doesn’t get much attention. Public opinion hasn’t caught up to the facts. Anti-poverty groups focus chiefly on children. Seniors’ groups tend to accentuate the needs of middle-to-upper income retirees. Governments don’t talk about incipient problems.

The trajectory can still be reversed. The Conference Board has sounded the alarm. The NDP has taken up the cause. People are thinking about pensions.

The time to act is now, before Canada’s fine record turns into a national embarrassment.

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