Fresh thinking about social policy

Posted on May 22, 2015 in Debates – Opinion/Comment – First glimpse of a social policy agenda hatched by four progressive think-tanks.
May 21 2015.   By: Carol Goar, Star Columnist

With hindsight we should have been warier.  For 20 years we went along as our political leaders promised to “do more with less”; “deliver services more efficiently”; and create “transformative change.” Too late, we realized these fine-sounding phrases were euphemisms for downloading, dismantling and disinvestment.

Turning back is not the solution. The social programs that served us well in the industrial era do not fit today’s world of temporary and part-time work, urban intensification, income polarization and non-traditional families.

So how do we move forward? How do we save the social infrastructure we have — 600,000 aging public housing units for example — and add the pieces we need without pushing taxes into the stratosphere or borrowing recklessly?

That is the subject of a year-long project by four public policy think-tanks entitled Renewing Canada’s Social Architecture. It is still underway, but the coalition has released its first batch of proposals. They range from ramped-up versions of what we are already doing to brand new programs. Some are borrowed from other countries, some are designed to unsnarl federal, provincial and municipal programs, and some are meant to tame competing bureaucracies.

The most radical option put forward by the research team is to sell off all of Canada’s social housing and use the proceeds to provide rent supplements or housing allowances. This would have to be preceded by an overhaul of the tax and regulatory system, which favours condominium construction over the building of new rental housing. It would also require a re-thinking of the role of CMHC (Canada Housing and Mortgage Corp.) The Crown corporation was created in 1946 to facilitate home ownership. The core need in today’s market is affordable rental accommodation.

An all-cash system would get people into decent apartments faster than the current approach of incremental investments, the researchers say. But policy-makers should do an exhaustive cost-benefit analysis before liquidating valued public assets.

The second major departure from the status quo in the blueprint is the establishment of a caregiver’s allowance, a monthly or quarterly payment to help Canadians look after a seriously ill, disabled or frail elderly individual. The British government provides “carers” (the preferred term in Europe) with $465 a month. The Swedish government provides remuneration commensurate with that of paid home care workers.

Such an allowance would at least recognize the $5 billion in unpaid labour that caregivers contribute to the health-care system. More tangibly, it would compensate them for their out-of-pocket expenses (which average $1,050 a month). One in five caregivers experience financial hardship.

A change of this magnitude would be expensive, the researchers allow. But Ottawa could get part-way by converting the current Caregiver Tax Credit and its Infirm Dependent Tax Credit into cash payments.

A third eminently sensible suggestion is to remove job training from the employment insurance system. Under the current arrangement, only those eligible for EI — which excludes young people with no work experience, part-time workers, temporary workers, most contract workers and discouraged job-seekers who have dropped out of the labour force — are allowed to register for federally supported skills training programs. Not only is this unfair, it’s short-sighted. With an aging population, Canada needs a steady influx of skilled workers to sustain its economy and a standard of living.

By decoupling job training from EI, Ottawa could remove one of the biggest barriers to young people seeking employment, workers who need to upgrade their skills and the long-term unemployed.

This is the kind of thinking we need to change course. The trajectory we’re on leads to greater inequality, heightened insecurity and more wasted talent.

It is too early to say whether the blueprint the coalition is drafting is politically or economically feasible. Key elements are still missing. The context is fluid: Canada could have a new prime minister within five months, a government that believes in investing in public services; a citizenry that understands that tax cuts come at a price.

For 20 years, we waited for social policy leadership from our governments. Now we’re figuring out how to do it ourselves.

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