Yesterday, between Olympic athletic triumphs and medal ceremonies, the federal budget came into public view with very little to offer, in particular for people struggling to make ends meet. With little surprise, the budget focused on the deficit and left many mysterious gaps in terms of what particular funding would mean for certain programs such as the Youth Employment Strategy. Essentially, no major (or minor!) announcements were made for issues such as housing, child care, post-secondary education, or income support that would positively affect the low-income population. Not only is this a missed opportunity, but this budget a sad reflection on the government’s focus of bottom lines over individual needs.
With an election on the horizon it seems that the federal focus is looking ahead, rather than at what needs to happen now. This is not only a narrow view, but it is also costly to governments and society as there is ample research demonstrating the enormous cost of homelessness and poverty versus the cost of addressing the issues. An election focus suggests that people are not on the agenda – votes are. There is a huge difference between the two. voters do not represent the interests of the entire country – only 61% of people voted in the last federal election, and low-income people are less likely to vote. (To make matters worse for the low-income population, proposed changes in the so-called Fair Elections Act will take away the ability for voting ‘vouching’, which allowed individuals who wanted to vote, but didn’t have identification to offer verification through a credible person/friend).
Some may be inclined to say that focusing on the election and offering vague promises is somehow acceptable. What this seems to be is an affront to the basic needs of individuals who cannot wait another month or year for adequate affordable housing, who cannot go find a job – as the government likes to say – seeing as child care and is too expensive. A budget offering no movement to critical social issues is in fact ignoring the severity of the problem.
Poverty is persistent and consistent in this country with between 3-4 million people experiencing it each year. The cost of poverty is estimated at between $72-86 billion per year. That is due to high costs to the health care and criminal justice systems as well as lost productivity and tax revenue. Poverty means eating poorly or sacrificing meals, living in inadequate housing or being homeless, facing intense levels of stress and being more likely to get sick, or even die sooner than the general population (see the recent research by the Canadian Medical Association). Inaction and non-commitment are harming people and government revenues. It just makes sense to do something more. Especially seeing as there is a projected surplus of $6.4 billion by 2015 (again in time for the election).
But maybe no news is better than promises gone unfulfilled. According to housing advocate Michael Shapcott who was quoted in Rabble news article, the $253 billion for affordable housing has yet to be delivered. In fact, it appears as though agreements between provinces and territories, which are meant to match funds, have not been signed.
While $40 million for youth internships and interest-free loans to apprentices in certain trades is positive movement on the youth file, no help on housing affordability or student loans leaves many graduates struggling. A solution to a 14% unemployment rate involves more than just internships. It requires a broader understanding of the issues.
The trouble with this empty budget is compounded when you think of the ideas and impact that the Alternative Federal Budget (AFB) proposed on February 5th. Taking into consideration the needs of individuals and families, the AFB manages to boost the economy, eliminate the deficit and support integral social services that lift people out of poverty. A total of 855,000 people would rise above the poverty line including 300,000 seniors and 260,000 children if the AFB was implemented. The AFB would also drop unemployment to 5.9% in 2014 and 5.4% in 2016/17 by creating 811,000 jobs. There is really no comparison between the two. The AFB offers solutions, while the actual budget does little to help low income and working people in Canada.
What the federal budget lacks is not only practical solutions, but vision. The message it sends is that low-income people and the working poor are not immediate priorities. So when will they be?