Dateline: Tuesday, March 27, 2007
by Armine Yalnizyan
The new message Canadians are sending their politicians is very clearly about better access to services, not tax cuts.
The Harper government wants you to believe that average families are squarely at the centre of their budget spending this year.
Before you celebrate this "something for everyone" approach to politics, consider this: A striking number of Canadians actually won't benefit from much of what is promised in this budget.
Most Canadian tax filers — 59 percent — report incomes of less than $30,000. Most of them will not be eligible for this budget's billions in promised tax credits.
86 percent of Canadians want the government to reduce the growing income gap.
Why? Revenue Canada statistics show people with incomes of less than $30,000 make up 99 percent of those who pay no taxes — 7.3 million tax filers. Tax credits don't reach people who don't pay taxes.
The only income "relief" for this group of voters goes to people who earn more than $3,000 but less than $9,500 in a year (or a family that earns less than $14,500).
The good news is that these people get a $500 benefit. The bad news is, that's the only help on the horizon — a measure designed to help encourage those on welfare to join the ranks of the "working poor" offers $1.37 a day.
No Canadian truly believes $1.37 a day can address the real needs of those struggling to pay the rent and feed the kids, let alone put them through school or save for retirement.
Two recent polls, conducted by The Strategic Council and Environics Research, show that tax cuts are widely viewed as yesterday's answer to yesterday's problems.
Canadians see strong economic growth and bulging federal coffers. Sure they'll take a tax cut, but they view social spending as a higher priority to meet today's challenges.
A whopping 86 percent of Canadians told Environics Research they think government should take concrete action to reduce Canada's growing income gap. And they know exactly what they want, for themselves and for society at large.
The new message Canadians are sending their politicians is very clearly about affordability. It's about better access to services, not tax cuts. Most say a few more dollars in the pocket ranks way down the wish list.
They want assistance with the things they need but can't control: basics like childcare, the skyrocketing costs of tuition for skills development and upgrading, housing and transit.
Politicians who address these issues have the backing of the vast majority of Canadians.
To their credit, the Conservatives almost got this message, but the spending they offered in this budget missed the mark, with no coherent plan to tackle Canadian concerns. This year's budget puts plenty of new money into infrastructure investments, but most of that money is going to enhance borders, highways and "gateways" to trade.
We are still waiting for the money that makes cities more liveable and builds better lives.
The new funds offered to provinces are not designed to ensure that the money gets used to tackle the big issues, nor to ensure every region of the country has enough to move forward.
The basics need to be there for everyone. Tax cuts can't buy affordable, accessible services for all.
Nor can strong economic growth and robust markets, by themselves, do the job. The only way is when governments, all governments, get involved, through direct investment.
Canadians aren't just worried about pocketbook issues. They are worried about the direction in which this country is headed.
In an Environics Research poll last fall, 76 percent of Canadians worried that a growing gap, left unchecked, would lead to more crime and would make Canada more like the US — something they don't want.
This budget may be celebrated as a masterful spin document, but in terms of substance its biggest failure is that it refuses to address, head on, one of the most pressing issues of our era: growing inequities in an era of incredible affluence.
It barely addresses the 15 percent of Canadian families raising their children on less than $30,000.
It has no answer for persistent and deepening poverty among our First Nations and aboriginal peoples. A year from now we will still be faced with these challenges, but will we have a surplus to deal with them?
It's incredible that we should be concerned about that possibility, because there is $35 billion in "surprise surplus" that is being frittered away in this pre-election period. It could have bought all the change Canadians are looking for, and more.
This government is banking on buying Canadians' votes with a budget that puts pressing social problems on hold. It's the cheap and easy way out in the short term. In the long term, Canadians will pay the price.
As alluring as tax cuts are, many Canadians are starting to connect the dots: A tax cut today means service cuts tomorrow.
We can do better. With $35 billion in surplus "mad money" we should have done better. It's time to demand better. Armine Yalnizyan is a research fellow with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and research director for the Community Social Planning Council of Toronto.