Canada needs 21st century social programs

Posted on May 20, 2015 in Social Security Policy Context – Opinion/Commentary – Four think-tanks join forces to design a modern set of social programs
May 19 2015.   By: Carol Goar, Star Columnist

Unless you’re rich enough to buy your way out of life’s problems, you’re at risk of falling through the holes in medicare, employment insurance, job training, elder care or social assistance. Perhaps you already have.
Consider the following all-too-common scenarios:

– Your parents’ health is rapidly declining. They’re having trouble taking care of themselves. You can’t afford to quit your job. You can’t get enough home care support to be sure your parents are properly fed and dressed and bathed. You could apply for long-term care, but the wait for a nursing home placement ranges from three months to more than two and a half years depending on the institution and the community. What do you do?

– You work in a major urban centre but you can’t afford to live there. Rents are high and vacancy rates are low. In Toronto, there are 87,000 applicants in the queue for social housing, the majority of whom will wait six years. You might be able to find an apartment in the outer reaches of Scarborough or Etobicoke but you’ll spend several hours in a crowded bus every day. What kind of life is that?

– Your job ended a few months ago. You weren’t employed long enough to qualify for jobless benefits. Your money is running out. You’ve tried every job search engine on the web, updated your social media profile, sent out resumes, cold-called employers and asked your friends, relatives and neighbours to check for vacancies at their workplaces. Where do you turn?

– You know you save for your retirement. But you don’t earn enough to set anything aside. You’re carrying a heavy debt load. Your kids need help paying for college or university. Like 60 per cent of Canadians you have no workplace pension plan. How are you supposed to prepare for the future?

– Your skills need upgrading. But your employer doesn’t offer on-the-job training. You can’t afford to pay for an off-site program, especially if it involves taking time off work. In order to get into a federally funded program, you’d have to go on employment insurance. There are provincial skills development programs, but they’re spread out over so many departments and agencies that you wouldn’t know where to begin. How do you keep pace with a swiftly changing labour market?

There is a reason so many Canadians are facing dilemmas like these, say the authors of a new report. “Canada’s social policies and programs have barely changed since the 1960s despite major transformations in our economy and society.”

For the past year, a team of researchers from the Caledon Institute, the Mowat Centre, the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity and the Institute for Research on Public Policy has been drafting a comprehensive plan to replace Canada’s fraying, outdated safety nets with fresh, effective ones.

The framework is now complete and three of the pillars — support for caregivers, access to affordable housing and employment skills training — are in place. The project was unveiled last week. Eight more components will be released by the end of June.

The main document < > explains the rationale and timing of the project: Canada’s current policies were designed for an era when most families were headed by a breadwinner and full-time homemaker; most jobs were permanent and full-time; most employers provided pension plans and health insurance; most couples began in an apartment and moved into a house in their child-rearing years. Their parents joined them when they could no longer live independently. It was assumed that each generation would do better than the last. That Canada no longer exists.

It identifies the drivers of change — globalization, outsourcing, high-speed technology, income polarization, government cost-cutting — and the price of inaction. “Fundamental challenges have been neglected for too long in favour of short-term fixes, resulting in large gaps that now threaten the economic prosperity of Canadians. Failing to rethink our social architecture for the demands of today’s globalized world will not only mean poorer incomes across a range of social and economic indicators, it will also erode Canada’s position in the global marketplace for talent.”

Each of the issue-specific papers follows the same pattern, but provides options for incremental and wholesale structural change. They are all written in plain language, all less than 25 pages.
The intent is not to provide ready-made prescriptions. It is to start an overdue conversation — preferably in time for this fall’s federal election.

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