Help coming for Canada's seniors?

Originally published in the Lethbridge Herald on March 19th, 2011. To go to the Lethbridge Herald website please click here

It appears there will be help coming for Canada’s seniors in next week’s federal budget.

In a story Thursday by The Canadian Press, Julian Fantino, the new seniors minister, called Canadians over 65 a “vulnerable group” that is in need of government support.

“One senior living in poverty is one senior too many in that predicament,” Fantino said.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has hinted the budget will provide help for poor and unattached elderly, particularly widows or single women lacking the work history to build up an adequate pension. Fantino hinted further in that direction.

“There’s a huge issue for the survivor in terms of pensionable income and those types of things,” Fantino said. “If a woman is left on her own and she hasn’t contributed to a pension plan and all of that, the hardship is obvious.”

Such assistance would be well placed. The Canadian Association for Retired Persons has said poverty among seniors particularly affects women and minorities, and noted the rate of poverty among female seniors is double the rate for senior men.

Many seniors were especially hard hit by the recession. An article from the CARP website which was originally published in The Globe and Mail in November noted that the number of seniors living in poverty jumped by nearly 25 per cent at the start of the recession, reversing a decades-long trend.

The article said women accounted for up to 80 per cent of the increase in seniors poverty. It quoted Armine Yalnizyan, an economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, as saying more women than men were already living close to the poverty line before the financial crisis hit in 2008, and, because their retirement savings tend to be smaller, they were more likely to fall below the low-income threshold. Contributing to the disparity was the fact men over 65 are twice as likely as female seniors to have a job.

Fantino suggested raising the Guaranteed Income Supplement for some seniors was one way to ease the problem, though there are other options as well. The federal government already provided some help earlier by dramatically raising the amount of money seniors can earn without giving up their GIS, which had been a key demand by seniors’ advocates. With seniors expected to be counted on to remain an important part of the dwindling labour force in coming years, that change should help considerably, especially for seniors who might be forced to keep working in order to make ends meet.

It isn’t only seniors living below the poverty line who need help, says Bernard Dussault, the former chief actuary for the Canada Pension Plan, In the Canadian Press story, Dussault pointed out that 35 per cent of seniors are living right at the poverty line. “These people don’t really live in dignity,” he said.

Assistance for Canada’s seniors will be welcomed not only by seniors but by those who are approaching that age group, many of whom had their retirement savings eroded by the global financial meltdown.