What does public policy in Canada look like when we prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in society—children, low-income individuals, and seniors? Some of the nation’s brightest public policy thinkers gathered to respond to this question at the recent Dignity for All Campaign Policy Summit in Ottawa.
The theme of this year’s Summit was income security throughout the life cycle, exploring issues related to federal income security programs for children, working adults, and seniors. The Summit represented a step forward toward drafting a model federal poverty elimination strategy – one of the DfA campaign’s primary goals.
The Summit kicked off with an overview of children’s public policy issues. The discussion highlighted the fact that despite a unanimous House of Commons motion in 1989 to end child poverty in Canada and years of effort by anti-poverty advocates, child poverty rates remain high.
Complicating matters is the fact that finding employment for parents is not always enough to pull a family out of poverty. Studies show that approximately one in three low-income children has at least one parent who is working full-time. University of Ottawa economist Miles Corak explained that parents are working longer hours while wages have stagnated. As a result, children and families are experiencing both financial poverty and “time poverty”— working harder for little economic return at the expense of time with family.
At the same time, public investments have made a difference for kids. Laurel Rothman, national coordinator of Campaign 2000, pointed out that public investments like the Canada Child Tax Benefit (CCTB) and the National Child Benefit (NCB) have been helpful in reducing child poverty. Very simply: more investment is needed.
The Summit brought to light the increase in precarious, low-paying work and unemployment that has been a defining feature of the labour market following the 2008 recession. Canada is home to tens of thousands of “working poor” who find themselves in poverty due to inadequate pay and limited advancement opportunities, despite the fact that they continue to work a comparable number of hours to the rest of the working-age population.
John Stapleton from Open Policy Ontario reported that in spite of this trend, welfare benefits in Canada are near a historic low, having dropped to levels not seen since 1966 – the result of more restrictive eligibility requirements and insufficient investment.
Summit participants discussed numerous modifications to a number of key programs that would help to ameliorate the situation for Canada’s working poor. Propositions included instituting a guaranteed annual income for the working poor by significantly increasing the Workers Income Tax Benefit (WITB), establishing national wage standards to help ensure that no employed person lives below the poverty line, and a recommendation from Laurell Ritchie of the Auto Workers’ Union to lower the minimum number of hours to qualify for EI.
With the government’s recent announcement to raise the retirement age from 65 to 67, Old Age Security (OAS) and the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) topped the list of hot topics at the Summit. As many, including CPJ, have noted, OAS/GIS is one of Canada’s best safeguards against poverty.
CCPA’s Monica Townson informed that OAS benefits constitute a significant percentage of income for many seniors. According to one estimate, OAS and GIS combined make up 36% of the income of all seniors. It is further estimated that public transfers (mainly OAS and GIS) constitute 77% of the total income of unattached low-income seniors. Chris Roberts from Canadian Labour Congress further noted that policy reforms must consider how OAS and GIS interact with other important measures like the Canada Pension Plan.
Most Summit participants were already aware that the government’s claim that OAS is no longer “sustainable” is unfounded. The cost projections used to buttress this argument do not take inflation into account and regardless, there are many other areas to draw savings. The Parliamentary Budget Office itself has contended that the program is not only sustainable, but could handle an increase in benefits.
This reality not only re-establishes age 65 as a reasonable year of retirement, it begs the question: why not set the age even lower, at 63? A few posed the idea at the Summit, generating some lively debate. While consensus remained elusive, it was commonly understood that the numbers themselves are not the key issue. The principle is that Canada is more than able, both now and in the future, to ensure that seniors, be they 63 or 65 years of age, do not live in poverty. It’s simply a matter of will.
It’s a lack of will that seems to plague the current government—a tendency that threatens to cast a shadow on those who promote policies that benefit society’s less fortunate. This makes it all the more important for advocates from diverse spheres of society to work together in their pursuit of a more caring society.
At the end of the day, pessimism did not have the last word. That’s because social reform is not an all-or-nothing exchange. Policymakers know that even incremental policy amendments can yield considerable results—results that for some can make the difference between a life lived in poverty and a life lived in dignity.
Two days immersed in education and critical review of policies, programs, and recommendations is enough to weary even the most stalwart of policymakers. But the efforts generated fruitful discussion and offered important revisions to DfA policy recommendations—all of which make for a stronger campaign for a poverty-free Canada. Revised and updated policy recommendations from the Summit, along with recommendations from last year’s Summit on housing & early childhood education and care, will be available in the coming weeks on the DfA website.
While opinions sometimes diverged, the spirit behind the Summit’s discussions was unanimous: poverty in Canada is unacceptable at any age. The presence of poverty in our nation indicates a pressing need for policies that develop and sustain strong income security programs. It indicates a pressing need for federal action.