Reframe Canada’s social safety net as its social architecture so we can rebuild it before it crumbles: report

Posted on May 13, 2015 in Social Security Policy Context – Canada/Politics
May 13, 2015.   Ashley Csanady

Imagine Canada’s social policies existed in an aging neighbourhood in various states of disrepair.

One building would be employment insurance and a tangled garden has made it harder to access, with long lines out front and many people opting for an easier-to-access neighbour: social assistance. The Canada Pension Plan and other retirement security offerings take up another building, shared by the public and private sector. Medicare lives in another structure, with an abandoned lot next door for pharmacare. Affordable housing and child care take up another chunk of real estate.

But all that social architecture is getting old and while some has had more upkeep than others, even significant renovations, none is exactly the kind of safe neighbourhood you’d want to raise a family in.

That’s the reality of Canada’s social policies, or social safety net, which a group of think tanks wants to reframe as our collective “social architecture,” with a series of papers just in time for an election campaign.

Elections are when Canadians talk about our policy priorities
“Elections are when Canadians talk about our policy priorities,” said Noah Zon, head of intergovernmental and social policy with Mowat and one of the authors of the series, in an interview. The independent public policy think tank is part of the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. Mowat partnered with the Caledon Institute of Social Policy, the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity and the Institute for Research on Public Policy.

“We want Canadians to think about those as part of that broader social architecture…. We use that instead of social safety net because (when you say) ‘social safety net’ people only think of programs the most vulnerable rely on.”

The entire country relies on medicare as its collective health insurance, Zon said. We all get some form of retirement benefit and the falling number of private-sector pensions to top up CPP’s annual $12,000 maximum should concern everyone.

“While the social architecture is under pressure, it still serves Canadians well in a few ways,” he said. “But it’s not serving Canadians as well as it ought to.”

Even if you never use employment insurance, you pay into, he said. Someone who makes $60,000 a year, pays about $914 to EI. The program isn’t serving everyone it needs, but it constantly produces multi-billion-dollar surpluses. Why is it then, as Zon wondered, “contributing on paper to the federal budget balance” when “only about a third of unemployed people can qualify for our main insurance against unemployment.

“Twenty-five years ago it covered roughly 85 per cent of people,” he said.
EI is also set up to create regional inequalities because of the structural nature of work in our massive country (the fisheries, for example, long relied on EI to supplement workers incomes in the winter). That’s left Ontario especially hardest hit. Zon said in some areas, notably Toronto and Hamilton, only about one in five EI claimants receive it.

The program is meant to keep people from falling into poverty during short-term unemployment, which is good for the overall health of the economy. But when they don’t qualify, Zon explained, they turn to the welfare system, which often requires that people fall into poverty after selling assets to qualify.

People are falling through the gaps in EI not because its foundations aren’t strong, but because it has been adapted to the times. Contract and part-time workers and the self-employed are a growing part of the workforce, but they aren’t covered. From 1976 to 2013, the number of part-time workers rose from 12.5 per cent of the workforce to 19 per cent.

It’s just one of many examples Mowat cites and one of many they want voters and politicians to inspect this fall.

“Canada is at a critical juncture,” the main framing paper titled “Renewing Canada’s Social Architecture,” states. Released Wednesday and provided in advance to the National Post, the paper argues “the country’s social architecture has not evolved to respond adequately to the new social risks and challenges emerging from shifts in the country’s demographics and labour market.”

Most of the pillars of that system were built in the post-war era that gave us the Baby Boomers and are similarly starting to show their age. Employment Insurance dates to 1940 and is built upon the premise of the male-bread-winner economy, when dad worked in the office or on the assembly line and mom conducted home economics. The National Housing Act was passed in 1944, laying the foundations for our crumbling social housing. Old Age Security followed in 1951 and CPP in 1965, lifting millions of seniors out of poverty in the subsequent decades but failing to keep pace with a longer-living but increasingly older population.

Medicare followed in 1966 but it has long been premised on the idea that employers offer full-time staff extra-medical benefits like pharmaceutical coverage. But as more and more employees work contract jobs or part-time hours, the paper notes those medical benefits and retirement coverage to top up the inadequacies of OAS and CPP are harder and harder to come by.

Maternity leave was introduced in 1971. The paper notes that just five years later, in 1976, about 51 per cent of women worked. In 2014, that rose to 74 per cent. But Employment Insurance still offers more parental leave benefits in Canada, and now caregiver leave benefits.

While the paper lauds that policy to help support the growing number of Canadians who are caring for ill or aging loved ones who need time off to do so, an accompanying analysis of EI wonders if all those tasks should fall to one program, or be spread out.

Mowat will release 12 issue-specific papers in all, three of them on Wednesday. Those tackle the subjects of caregivers, affordable housing and employment skills training, with the hopes of offering a blueprint for renewing that collective neighbourhood. And, Zon said the renovations don’t need to cost anything, they could simply repurpose existing resources.

Our social architecture isn’t condemned, yet. It’s just suffered from decades of neglect.

“There’s a generation of blame to go around,” Zon said. “Governments of all stripes all throughout the country, voters of all stripes, have allowed some of these long standing challenges to persist. At the same time, we could not have necessarily predicted some of the complex demographic factors that led to changing labour markets.”

A demographic storm has ripped through social architecture: in 1980, there were 14 seniors for every 100 workers, in 2013 there were 22 for every hundred. By 2056, the report says there could be 50 seniors for every 100 workers. Add in a debt-hobbled, over-educated generation in precarious work, fewer and fewer defined retirement benefits and more new Canadians, and one more flood could flatten the neighbourhood.

But it doesn’t yet need to be torn down. Zon said, like any neighbourhood, there’s stuff you want to repair, buildings with character you want to maintain, and others you might want to rebuild from scratch. Because, if we don’t fix the broken windows and leaky roofs now, he said “we’re likely to see increasing poverty and inequality, we could see a less productive economy because of the pressure it may place on employers or the inability of certain Canadians to be able to participate in the work force.”

“It will harm our quality of life if we fail.”

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Three ideas from Mowat to improve employment skills training:

1. Create a more supportive environment for Canadians who upgrade their skills, either through direct grants or even “payback clauses” to encourage private-sector employers to foot the bill;

2. Remove the requirement that a Canadian be eligible for Employment Insurance to receive many types of job training, including the Canada Job Fund;

3. Restructure program delivery so federal, provincial and municipal governments aren’t all responsible in different ways for different things, which creates a byzantine system that’s confusing for users.


Three ideas from the Caledon Institute to improve support for caregivers:

1. Draft a national strategy to coordinate the various supports and even integrate the myriad agencies that deliver them;

2. Allocate more funding to volunteer organizations that help with support groups and other services;

3. Convert existing caregiver benefits from non-refundable to refundable tax credits.


Three ideas from Mowat to improve affordable housing:

1. Reinvest in the existing stock and improve support for the growing number of non-profits delivering affordable and social housing;

2. Encourage the expansion of the rental housing stock and its affordability, through policies to encourage more public housing, purpose-built rental units or rewards private sector for doing so;

3. Integrate housing support into other social programs, such as social assistance, where many recipients spend the bulk of their benefits on costly private-sector rentals.

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