By Terrance Hunsley
HUMA – the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development, and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, (the name rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it.) has spent a year hearing from Canadian experts, social advocates, municipal and business leaders, about what the federal government can do to reduce poverty in the country.
They spent long hours in 26 meetings and travelled the country. They heard presentations from 162 Witnesses and received 74 written briefs. Accompanied by a dissenting message from the Conservative party members and an supplementary message from the NDP members, the report fills some 200 pages of advice on how the federal government can reduce poverty.
The report was prefaced with the observation that:
The Committee found that across all sectors there are a multitude of programs and services assisting those living in poverty. The federal, provincial, and territorial governments already have an established system of measures that encompass income supports, education and training, physical and social infrastructure development, and housing. The Committee finds it frustrating that after so many programs and years of funding by all levels of government, such little progress has been made in reducing child poverty and poverty among persons with disabilities and that the rate of poverty among unattached working age adults is increasing.
The Committee then went on to recommend either changes or new initiatives, for more than fifty specialized federal services or benefits. Little wonder that one of them was to help with “system navigation”, given that these fifty bureaucratic entities in turn represent only the tip of the iceberg of social benefits and services, when provincial, municipal, and community programs are included. The expanded involvement includes affordable housing and programs for the homeless. They include the exploration of a portable housing subsidy for those who do not have access to subsidized housing stock. Women’s shelters and Aboriginal housing would receive greater funding. Increased subsidies for low income workers would be provided through an expanded Working Income Tax Benefit (WITB). People with disabilities would receive more through tax credits and CPP disability. Labour market programs would be improved.
Increased funding for the GIS for seniors, and increased contributions for early learning and child care, including indigenous communities, were also on the list. It would be hard to find anyone left out.
The Committee Chair, MP Brian May, emphasized that the whole committee wanted to ensure that the recommendations were do-able; that they pertained to actions that the federal government has the jurisdiction to carry out. Most of the recommendations in fact are for increased spending from existing programs. May wants the report to guide federal actions and has taken note that Minister Jean Yves Duclos, in his letter of mandate, is specifically instructed to come up with a plan for increased federal presence in relation to homelessness and affordable housing. Extra funding has already been announced in the last budget. The Ministry (Employment and Social Development) is carrying out a parallel consultation on a national poverty reduction strategy including housing initiatives.
May feels that committees in this Parliament have a more independent role. In the past, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister was often thought to be directing the committee chair behind the scenes. But he felt no hand on his shoulder in his role as chair.
The committee added services for the mentally ill to their mandate, and recommended expanded federal contributions, focussing also on links of mental illness and homelessness, and recommended that the federal government take a leadership role in relation to workplace accommodation of persons with mental illness.
The conservative members, with the vice-chair Bob Zimmer, appended a “dissenting” report. It was overall quite supportive of the process and work of the committee, and aside from voicing opposition to a carbon tax, could really be seen as complimentary. They pointed out how the bureaucratic complexities of the dozens of silo service and benefit systems can trap people into situations where any effort to extricate themselves from poverty could result in every dollar they earn triggering uncoordinated reductions in benefits which total more than the extra money earned. They called for the government to compile annually a report on Marginal Effective Tax Rates (METR) generated by the mix of federal, provincial and municipal benefit systems, and also for the federal government to attach a ”make work pay” condition to any transfers to other governments, that no person receiving those benefits be subjected to a METR of more than 50%.
Their report was unequivocal in calling for a stop to “corporate welfare” and to regressive subsidies to the wealthy. They also tackled the issue of urban zoning restrictions and “snob zoning” which they pointed out can impede the potential for affordable housing. They supported easing the tax back provisions of the WITB, especially for people with disabilities. They recommended regulatory changes to ensure that aboriginal people could access mortgages for housing on reserves, and also that capital gains tax be removed from assets which are liquidated to be given as charitable donations.
Mr Zimmer commended the work of the committee and felt that all members worked well together. He also felt that several ministers are sincerely engaged in seeking solutions, so is hopeful that the government will want to work with the committee in tackling the implementation process.
The NDP members, in addition to supporting the majority report, provided a supplementary opinion. We contacted the office of committee vice-chair Brigitte Sansoucy by telephone and followed up by email to request an interview, but received no response. The supplementary opinion restated several of the recommendations in more fervent terms, and emphasized Canada’s obligations to protect the rights of residents to an adequate standard of living, including appropriate housing.
They recommended that the federal government “develop an income security architecture to provide all Canadians with a guaranteed basic income.” They also recommended that consideration be given to providing the basic income on a family basis. They recommended a federal minimum wage of $15 per hour, and that the cost of prescription drugs be included in medicare. They also highlighted the need to deal with food insecurity in remote areas, and recommended “massive” investment in housing programs.
The NDP were the only party to suggest that the federal government commit itself to a basic income guarantee, although the record of witness presentations and committee discussion indicate that it was a consistent topic and seemed to be favourably viewed by all.
The elephant in the room here is the responsibility of provincial governments to provide social assistance, and the predominant provincial jurisdiction in this area, as well as social services, subsidized housing, homelessness initiatives, mental health needs, prescription drugs, child care and early learning, etc. The federal government has to choose its route carefully. It can attempt to reach a national consensus with provincial governments on an overall income guarantee program, the level of guarantee, effective tax rates on earned income and other subsidies etc. Or it can work around the edges and supplement programs that it currently administers or has arrangements in place with provinces.
The committee avoided any reference to increases in social assistance, or to implementing a basic income, Chairman May noting that these are provincial jurisdiction issues and they wanted to restrict themselves to things that are “do-able”. Nonetheless he agreed that the federal government far outspends the provinces for income security. He felt that the combination of benefit increases recommended in the report would constitute a strong move in the direction of a basic income guarantee, while still leaving the provinces space to carry out their own responsibilities.
There is a reluctance federally to get back into open-ended cost-sharing arrangements whereby provinces make the spending decisions and the federal contributions are not very visible to the public. So current political judgement seems to be to work around the edges even if it leaves in place the confusing and often counterproductive labyrinth of programs, benefits, subsidies and services that the committee found frustrating from the beginning. A massive work for members to go through to get their heads around these complex and interwoven issues that continuously undermine the efforts of Canadian society to do away with poverty; and kudos to the members of all parties for coming up with a comprehensive set of progressive recommendations.
A bit on the down side, there was little analysis in the report of work trends and the emerging digital economy. The committee suggested that the government develop its labour market programs with a view to the future workforce. But it offered no creative ideas about how to redistribute or create new work and support consumption through the economic disruptions that are widely anticipated with advances in technology.