Support for low income seniors was an open secret going into budget

March 22 2011: Support for low income seniors was an open secret going into today’s budget lockup. The surprise was a modest nod for family caregivers. The bigger surprise was that it was all there was for one of the government’s key constituencies – older voters.

In media interviews, the only question was whether this and other measures would be enough to get opposition support for the Budget and forestall an election. That is not the right question to ask about a Budget. Besides, the opposition rejected it – so now where are we?

A Budget is meant to be the manifestation of how a government proposes to govern – tax and spending measures being the most important tools at hand and which have the most immediate impact on Canadians as taxpayers and as citizens who have given the government the mandate to manage the nation’s affairs on their behalf. So the question should not be whether the Budget is enough to forestall an election but whether it stipulates the appropriate strategies for economic growth and reducing deficits as well as targeting priorities like ensuring equitable access to health care and removing barriers so that people can look after what they need and their loved ones.

So while the narrow focus on low income seniors is one of the priorities CARP members said was a pre-condition for their support of the Budget, CARP calls for a longer term view and a comprehensive set of income supports and expense reductions that ensures that no Canadian senior lives in poverty. And that means helping not just those the very worst off but doing something for the 1.6 million Canadians relying on the Guaranteed Income Supplement, or GIS. The GIS top up will affect 680,000 of them.

60% of CARP members polled before the budget thinks that would be an issue worth fighting an election over.

A primary theme for CARP members is altruism – concern for those less well off. But they also need something to help themselves – they’ve been hard hit by the recession especially those with a few dollars put away for retirement.

CARP members wanted to see a moratorium or elimination of the withdrawal rules for Registered Retirement Income Funds. Retirees who have a RRIF must withdraw, and pay income taxes on, a minimum amount from their registered account each year. This did not happen nor did CARP members expect it to be addressed.

CARP has also called for changes to rules for Tax-Free Savings Accounts that would allow older Canadians to contribute a lifetime lump sum retroactive to age 18 to help them recover from the market crash that devastated their retirement savings. Nothing there.

CARP members also have a longer term view and want structural changes to how government spends our tax dollars.

We wanted to see some caregiver support for the 2.7 million Canadians caring for loved ones at home instead of taxing the public health care system. The increase to the existing caregiver tax credit categories offers up to $300 in additional non-refundable tax credits – about $25 per month, and that’s only if you have taxes payable. If you had to quit your job to take care of a loved one, this tax credit is non-refundable and may not help you.

National pharmacare program. Canadians spend $25 billion a year on prescription drugs and bulk buying and other structural changes can reduce those costs nearly in half. Why wouldn’t we try to do that?

So no pleasant surprises. But then, CARP members did not have high expectations for this Budget despite all the talk. This was a pre-election budget alright. But it was targeted at the Opposition and even with a separate pamphlet focusing on seniors, there was certainly not enough for older Canadians.

Keywords: budget, seniors, GIS, caregiver tax-refund