Tinkering with EI leaves the core problems unresolved

Posted on September 2, 2020 in Social Security Delivery System

Source: — Authors:

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinion
August 31, 2020.   Hugh Segal

Hugh Segal is a Mathews Fellow in Global Public Policy at the Queen’s School of Policy Studies, senior adviser at Aird and Berlis, LLP, and a former Conservative senator.

On Aug. 20, the federal government announced the extension of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and upcoming changes to Employment Insurance. Not surprisingly, the federal public service appears to have tinkered with existing programs rather than initiating a clear departure from the status quo on income security. In this period of prorogation, the Prime Minister has stated that time is needed for reflection while the government puts together its plan for going forward post-COVID. The Throne Speech is the perfect opportunity for the government, with the support of the opposition, to put an end to the tinkering with Employment Insurance and move forward with real solutions.

The current Employment Insurance system has left 40 per cent of unemployed Canadians unprotected for decades. Tinkering with it is not a “rethink” – it is “old think” and it evades the core issue. If we truly want to address the gaps in our system and fight poverty, we need to take a hard look at not just EI, but at other income support programs as well. The issue is the risk and reality of poverty now faced by welfare recipients who are prevented from working by program rules, and the 70 per cent of those beneath the poverty line who are employed but at “working poor” wages. Over three million Canadians fall into this category – too many of whom are Black, Indigenous and new immigrants of colour. Any tinkering with existing programs leaving these “old normal” problems unaddressed will make little difference.

“Path dependency” is a term in economics describing how governments go back and forth in the same path or furrow, time and time again, at various speeds, perhaps a bit to the right or left, but always in the same furrow. Eventually, the furrow gets deeper and deeper, further and further away from the sun and becomes a rut easily flooded. That is not what Canadians deserve from their national government.

Like the Guaranteed Income Supplement for Canadian residents over the age of 65, which tops up anyone with a monthly income of less than $1,500, we have the capacity to protect those between ages 18 and 64 from living in or falling into poverty, working poor or otherwise. Tinkering at the edges or succumbing to the chimera of evasive incrementalism will solve none of the fundamental problems that were starkly revealed by the pandemic. The chance to make a substantial change for the better for those who live in poverty – their families and neighbourhoods, their health status and life prospects – is required of all of us who value the idea of equality of opportunity, not just for the fortunate and well off, but for all Canadians.

The pathologies of poverty always produce poor health outcomes. This was confirmed during the pandemic. Part-time, underpaid employees of long-term care facilities, with no benefits and holding down several jobs in different homes, became the innocent vectors of the new coronavirus. Low-income areas were hit harder. If fewer people lived in poverty, society would pay far less in health care costs. If the Prime Minister and new Minister of Finance want a fairer society, revamping income support programs – rather than merely tinkering with them – would replace the politics of evasion with the policies of courage. This also applies to the other federal political parties and leaders, especially during a minority Parliament. Right now, Parliamentarians have a rare opportunity for genuine innovation. It would be society-changing.

I know of no policy principles, in any of our political parties, that embrace opportunity and fairness for only the well off. All our Members of Parliament have a rare and historic chance to carve a new path through the thicket of rules-based bureaucratic Band-Aids that have sustained the continuum of ineffective, inefficient programs that have failed to reduce the staggering costs of poverty to society and not helped millions of poor and working-poor Canadians. The Sept. 23 Speech from the Throne is the perfect opportunity to put these plans in place.

There is little room on this challenge for any partisan preening by our parties and leaders. There is a lot of room for leadership, collaboration and courage. Canadians, having seen the devastation wrought by COVID-19, have the right to expect no less.



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