Motion to End Poverty For Canada's Seniors

Irene Mathyssen London—Fanshawe, ONmoved: That, in the opinion of this House, ending seniors' poverty in Canada is fiscally feasible, and, therefore, the House calls on the government to take immediate steps to increase the Guaranteed Income Supplement sufficiently to achieve that goal.

Mr. Speaker, I would like to begin this morning's debate with a few illustrations of why this motion is so important.

We are talking about the people in our communities, seniors like Cliff Stafford from Oshawa who, after 50 years of hard work as a mechanic, has to rely on food banks to feed himself. That is wrong. He lost his wife nine years ago, he still has a mortgage to pay, and he is grappling with an illness. He watches every penny he spends, but the money just does not stretch far enough.

There is Tony from Vancouver who was a former real estate agent. After a divorce and two bouts with cancer, all of her RRSPs have been cashed in and she has no savings left. At 62, she cannot afford a place to live.

There is Frank, a senior in Sturgeon Falls, Ontario, whose bills for basic utilities have gone up by $20 a month because of the government's HST. This may not seem like a lot of money, but it is when one is trying to make ends meet. It is cold up there and turning off the heat is not an option.

There is also Joey Jayne in Winnipeg who was forced into early retirement due to an injury at her workplace. She is now forced to use a food bank as her small pension and benefits are just not enough.

In Winnipeg, the number of seniors using food banks nearly doubled last year. Sadly, this is a trend right across the country. In Waterloo, one in four users of food banks are seniors.

The plight of seniors living in poverty is unnecessary and easily addressed with a targeted increase to the GIS. That is the reason why this motion is so very important. With a small investment, we can make a significant impact on the everyday lives of seniors. This is intelligent, practical and affordable. This targeted increase to the GIS would cost significantly less than the $700 million that the government gave to the G20.

To give the House some perspective, the Senate of Canada costs Canadian taxpayers $106 million a year. Since April 2006, the federal government has spent over $125 million on hospitality expenses. The Government of Canada spent $26 million in three months on advertising its economic action plan before the last election. In the 2009-10 fiscal year, the total federal advertising cost taxpayers $136.3 million. From 2006-10, the government spent over $6 million on Google word ads.

Perhaps the government would prefer not to make cuts to advertising or hospitality, but we could look to where the government is now losing revenue. Last year corporate tax cuts cost the government $8 billion and $6 billion this year. A tiny fraction of this amount would be enough to bring our seniors out of poverty.

The GIS, which is supposed to help seniors, actually forces many seniors, especially those who are single, into poverty. The amount of money they have to live on is not enough to make ends meet. If they try to earn more, their benefits are clawed back, which further condemns them to poverty. The motion before the House today would give those seniors enough money to bring them up to a reasonable standard of living without facing clawbacks of the benefits they depend on for quality of life.

The National Union of Public and General Employees outlines the critical problem with the small GIS increase in the most recent budget. NUPGE argues that the government's increase would provide only $1.64 a day for single seniors and $2.30 for couples. This amount would only go to those with less than $2,000 in annual income, excluding moneys from OAS and GIS. Any income over $2,000 and seniors would see their increase clawed back at the rate of 75%. It is shameful that we would expect anyone to try to scrape by on so little and then penalize them if they manage to make a little more money to buy food and other necessities.

According to CARP, Ontario is home to 1.7 million people receiving OAS. Of that group, over 475,000 Ontarians receive GIS benefits.

Eligibility for GIS is based on a maximum income, other than OAS, of $15,888 per year for an unattached person over 65 and $20,976 for a married couple. Individuals living just above the income threshold are ineligible for GIS benefits. This is not a lot of money when one considers the cost of rent, prescription drugs, and all the other bills that have to be paid, particularly for unattached seniors. It is for those who do not have pension savings or an adequate income that this motion is designed to help.

The maximum benefits that one can receive from OAS and GIS combined is $1,191. That is just over $14,000 a year. This money will barely cover rent in most cities in this country and that is a travesty, especially since it is something that we can fix.

Canada is a rich and privileged country. We need to support our seniors because it is the ethical thing to do and practical in terms because our seniors support the economy and their families. We depend on seniors' volunteer work. We depend on their help with child care. We depend on them to participate in the economy. They can do none of this if they are struggling in poverty.

Today, we are talking about our parents and our grandparents, but our handling of their concerns will affect not just them but also our generation and that of our children.

Seniors represent one of the fastest growing populations in Canada today. The number of seniors in Canada is projected to increase from 4.2 million to 9.8 million between 2005 and 2036. With so many more seniors retiring in the years to come, we need to have a social safety net in place now to avoid dramatic increases in the rate of poverty in the future.

The concerns for the future are very real. Today, only 38.5% of Canadian workers have workplace pensions and nearly one-third have no retirement savings at all. More than 3.5 million Canadians are not saving enough in RRSPs for what used to be called their golden years, and 75% of workers are not even participating in a registered pension plan.

Clearly, the notion that retirement savings can be adequately accounted for through purchases of RRSPs does not work and urgent government action is needed.

It should further be noted that private retirement savings are concentrated in a small percentage of families. According to Statistics Canada, 25% of families hold 84% of these assets, while 3 out of 10 families have no private pensions at all.

Seniors have worked hard all their lives. They have played by the rules. They simply want access to the programs and services that their hard-earned tax dollars helped to build. Programs such as the GIS are essential to their full participation in Canadian society. They allow seniors to retire with the dignity and respect they deserve.

But when income supports are inadequate, there are terrible consequences. One of my constituents, Ruth, lives with her daughter now because she cannot afford to live on her own. Ruth's daughter has lost time from work to care for her mother. But when Ruth's daughter attempted to claim a caregiver amount on taxes to assist with lost wages, she was denied because Ruth's income was $1,057 over the yearly maximum allowable, even though Ruth's income leaves her below the poverty line.

There is also Judy Howe and her husband from Halifax who struggle to get by. Their rent is nearly $1,000 per month, leaving them with very little for food. In the public housing for seniors, where they live, they battle mice and rarely have access to hot water or heat.

Every senior in Canada has the absolute right to income security. In a series of polls conducted by the Canadian Labour Congress in 2004, 73% of Canadians polled said that they worried about not having enough income to live after retirement. The number of people who worried about income security had increased by almost 20% from two years before.

Canadians are worried about the solvency of their private pensions, the adequacy of both CPP and public income support, and their ability to cope with what Statistics Canada confirms is a higher inflation rate for seniors and for the average Canadian. Those fears are well-founded.

For instance, in London, Ontario, McCormick, which later became known as Beta Brands, a food processing firm which had been part of manufacturing in our community for more than 100 years, was purchased in 2007 by a Florida investment firm. The company laid off the entire workforce of 275 workers. It closed the plant and denied the workers their vacation pay, severance pay, and denied them their pensions.

Many of the workers at Beta Brands had been there for 35 to 40 years. Some were married couples. When the plant closed, many of these workers were utterly destitute. Despite having worked all their lives, the employees of Beta Brands face poverty and a loss of quality of life in their senior years. While this motion will not give them back their pensions, it will ease the pressure on their monthly bills.

In total, more than a quarter million seniors live below the poverty line. Since the mid-1990s, the income of seniors has reached a ceiling and the gap between the revenues of seniors and those of other Canadians is now increasing. According to the government's own national advisory council on aging, between 1997 and 2003 the mean income of senior households increased by $4,100 while the average income of other Canadian households increased by $9,000.

The situation is even more pronounced for seniors living alone. A life of poverty is most prevalent among women, those widowed, separated or divorced, recent immigrants, tenants, those without private pension coverage, and not surprisingly those with low wages.

Senior women face harsh realities upon retirement. The poverty rate for senior women is almost double the poverty rate for senior men. In particular, unattached women remain very vulnerable. They make up 60% of seniors living below the poverty line. In 2003, according to a Government of Canada report, 154,000 unattached senior women lived in poverty.

How do our mothers and grandmothers end up living in poverty? There are many reasons. Women's unpaid work makes their risk of poverty higher and results in less access to private pensions. Older women tend to have lower incomes because they live longer, which leaves them at greater risk of using up their savings as time goes by. Immigrant women are particularly vulnerable. Many over the age of 65, who have lived in Canada for 10 years or less, are without any income at all. Senior women receive smaller pension incomes because of the wage difference between men and women. Most divorced women do not claim a portion of their former spouses' pension even though they are entitled to it. Many retirement plans do not compensate for absences to raise children or look after sick relatives and we know that these absences are generally taken by women.

The ratio of male-to-female earnings tells a story of persistent, systematic inequality between male and female incomes, whether from employment or pensions. Women are concentrated in low wage and part-time jobs where there is rarely a pension available at all.

Women who are able to work are still at a disadvantage. Women in this country work for pay at 75% of their potential working years, whereas men work for 94% of their potential working years. Consequently, women have less opportunity to save for their pension. More men than women save through RRSPs because men tend to make more money and they are able to put more money aside for their retirement.

I think that it is very important to emphasize that these senior women living in poverty did not end up there the day they retired. It was the poverty of their youth or the near poverty that prevented them from setting aside money for retirement. That is the real source and genesis of this problem.

Senior women, whose spouses pass away, face a reduction in their partners' private pension and CPP, a deduction of 40%. This is problematic as some women may not be able to afford to maintain their standard of living. Expenses for a single person are about 70% of the living expenses for a couple. This has the potential to drive women into poverty as many senior women depend on their spouses' pension for the couple's income.

Our senior women need access to pension dollars, whether they work outside the home or in the home raising a family. Our mothers, our grandmothers, our fathers, our grandfathers, they all deserve the right to live in dignity, the right not to live in poverty.

Another of my constituents, Maria, is turning 65 next month and is currently on a provincial disability support plan. Maria learned that her CPP entitlement would be a meagre $22.49 per month and that she would be eligible for OAS in the amount of $286.89 per month. Maria receives assistance for incontinence and diabetic supplies through the provincial disability program, of about $500 per month, but she will not be eligible for the extra medical expenses through OAS. She is worried about how she will manage when she is on the Canada pension plan and no longer entitled to this extra provincial help. Maria thought that her monthly income would decline by about $1,500 with the extra medical assistance and that her income would be $309.38 a month to live on. No one told her about the GIS top-up and, as a result, Maria was experiencing profound anxiety regarding her financial difficulties to come.

Maria came to my constituency office in great distress, having been told there was no other help for her. I am lucky to have a wonderful and compassionate staff who went to work for Maria. My office was able to quickly determine that she was eligible for the GIS top-up, equalling $902.08 monthly. With GIS, OAS and CPP, she will receive $1,191.85 monthly, but she will still fall well below the $1,500 that she was receiving on disability. Maria is expected to manage on less than $15,000 a year, which is well below the poverty line.

This motion will go a long way in helping Maria to make ends meet.

Another woman, a 63-year-old from Waterloo, spends the majority of her disability pension on rent. This leaves her with a mere $48 per month to live on. She is on a six-year waiting list to get into affordable housing.

Our Party, the New Democrats, have been fighting for the rights of seniors for many years. When the GIS was first introduced as a bill in the House, New Democrats were there speaking in support to eliminate the poverty of our seniors. I would like to quote New Democrat Grace MacInnes, who spoke in this very chamber on December 5, 1966, on behalf of the poor and in support of the GIS. Grace said:

When I think of the elderly people of this country, those who have built this country, have hewn its forests and tilled its fields, have made its homes and raised its children, have worked its mines and fished its shores, those elderly men and women both in my riding and in ridings across the country who have nothing to depend on except their community for which they have worked so long and so hard, people who believed and had faith in the minister's statement that something much better would be in store for them,. I am reminded of a verse which puts the situation much more eloquently than I could put it:

Two things, says Kant, fill me with awe,The starry heavens and the moral lawAnd yet a third, more awful and obscure,The long, long patience of the plundered poor.

I feel, Mr. Chairman, that the elderly people of this country have certainly had the long, long patience. But this government has permitted them to be plundered of their heritage and their birthright, which surely is to finish out their days in this country in comfort, with modern living standards and in security. I appeal to the minister to cut out playing with words and to amend the legislation so that we may once again go back to an across-the-board old age pension in this country as of right. I ask the minister to undertake a study to fix an income level which we can truly call a guaranteed income for the elderly people of this country.

Mr. Speaker, we have come a long way since those days in improving pensions, but there is much more to do. Grace's words are as true today as they were in 1966.

We in the New Democratic Party will never stop making proposals for seniors. We did in the past and we will continue in the future. We will, again and again, move motions to protect seniors, because they are our parents and grandparents, the builders of this nation.