Tories prefer tightly framed aid for seniors rather than big boost to GIS

This article was published by the Canadian Press on February 2nd, 2011 and subsequently republished by newspapers across the country.

OTTAWA – The Harper government is considering special help for elderly single women in its March budget, but is rebuffing demands for broad support for all impoverished seniors, The Canadian Press has learned.

It’s not yet clear whether the more-limited measures would be enough to earn support from the opposition New Democrats, crucial for the budget to pass.

The NDP has asked for a $700-million-a-year increase in the Guaranteed Income Supplement that would, in theory, raise every poor senior above the poverty line.

The increase, the NDP and others argue, would be especially helpful to single women — a particularly vulnerable group of seniors.

The Tories agree that unattached senior women need help, but they’re looking at different options, sources say.

“I don’t think they’ll do the GIS,” said Susan Eng, who heads the advocacy arm for the seniors’ lobby group CARP.

Eng met with the new seniors minister, Julian Fantino, this week and said he was especially receptive to hearing about ways federal policy could be tweaked to help poor, older Canadians.

“I was charmed to finally hear them talk about low-income seniors,” she said.

A consensus has formed around which seniors need the most help. The poverty rate among seniors in general is low, compared with other demographics — about seven per cent. But among women over the age of 65 who live alone, the poverty level rises to about 18 per cent.

“We do have, regrettably, particularly some single older Canadians who are not entitled to the Canadian Pension Plan — because in their day they worked at home raising children, and did not work outside the home — who have some income issues,” Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said this week.

“And that’s something that, you know, all Canadians I’m sure would like us to address.”

Besides creating an extra benefit designed specifically for unattached seniors below the poverty line, there are a raft of low-key options that Flaherty could adopt.

Rather than going for the grandiose approach of raising GIS across the board, a recent parliamentary committee report proposes:

— increasing the amount of money low-income seniors can earn before seeing their GIS clawed back. At a minimum, the government should at least index the exemption to the inflation rate.

— excluding Canada Pension Plan payments from the GIS calculation so that the GIS doesn’t simply dry up if CPP payments are made.

— having seniors mark on their tax return if they are eligible for GIS, so they don’t have to apply every year. Almost 160,000 eligible seniors are missing out on government support because they don’t apply properly.

— improve CPP payments for low-income seniors and take into account the years that some seniors have to spend out of the workforce to take care of gravely ill family members.

Eng has a few options of her own, including an exclusion of RRSP income from the calculations of GIS. She would also like to see Ottawa supplement the incomes of unattached seniors between the ages of 60 and 64, since they are not entitled to the same allowances as married people.