By Robert Hart
In its recent budget, the Harper government unilaterally announced its intention to push the age of eligibility for old age security (OAS) pensions from 65 to 67, depriving Canadians of two years worth of social entitlement, valued at over $12,000 for person.
They have done this without any kind of public consultation. It is another example of the federal government off loading its responsibilities onto the provinces who will have to pick up additional costs.
It is also an example of breaking a social trust. We are well advised to save for our older age. In doing that, we each add our savings and pensions to our OAS to come up with a figure that we think will carry us through. We expect to carry our share. We trust our government to do the same. It seems that trust has been misplaced.
The argument is that there are more of us and that we are living longer and so the cost is no longer sustainable, especially to a government in deficit.
The truth is that there can easily be enough money. The government has a choice in how they set the tax structure, that is, how much revenue they collect from any sector for the services they then provide that sector.
It is more a question of ideology. The Harper government does not agree with the role of government in social investment and social care and they prefer to lessen that role at every turn. But Harper does not envision any lessening of support to the corporate sector. They will continue to receive tax write-offs that, of course, will make it even harder for his government to continue to offer services to its citizens and their families.
But the creation and maintenance of broad social well being is the proper role of government, now more than ever in an age of increasing complexity and insecurity. The government position assumes that most Canadians can save an adequate amount for retirement and that they will choose to work for an additional two years to enrich their later years. This is not the case.
The average debt of Canadians is increasing. The cost of living, especially housing, is also increasing, as is the cost of health care. Debt is an increasing concern for our young, who now accumulate more student debt than we did a generation ago, (because government support to students and schools shrank there too). Accordingly, they need an increasing amount of support from their parents who are, at the same time, faced with the costs of caring for their aging parents. While an increasing number of Canadians may decide to continue to work at 65, they will generally make that decision out of necessity. This means they will count more on their OAS, not less.
If times are tough for the middle class, they are more so for poorer Canadians. When it was introduced, Old Age Security, (along with the Guaranteed Income Supplement), virtually eliminated destitution for older Canadians.
Poverty rates for seniors plummeted and have remained low ever since. People who are poorer do not generally have other pension plans to draw on and have not been able to save for retirement. Pushing the pension to age 67 will give them nothing but two more years of poverty. Poverty costs money. When people are kept poor, their health costs go up. We all pay for that as a society. The Harper government has long promised the expansion of the prison system. But no one thought they would be expanding the prison of poverty. There are other ways we risk social impoverishment. 450,000 seniors provided unpaid childcare in 2006. 413,000 cared for older seniors. Older Canadians have a 70 per cent rate of providing direct help to others. And 87 per cent donate to charitable or non-profit organizations and they have the highest average donation – $611 in 2007. Reducing government support to them will lessen their ability to support others. It is an attack on civil society.
This government does not stand for the social principles that most Canadians continue to believe in: social equity and care for others. They have also forgotten the statistic about what seniors do more than others. They vote.
The Harper government did not make its intention to cut the OAS public during the last election. Let them answer for that in the next one.
Robert Hart is the President of the Northwest Branch of the BC Association of Social Workers and he lives in Terrace, BC.