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Stepping over the poverty line

December, 2010

In a post-financial meltdown society, the rich might not be getting any richer, but the poor, especially if they are elderly and living alone, will definitely get poorer.

A recent report by Campaign 2000 reveals that 250,000 Canadian seniors are living below the poverty line, representing a 25-per-cent increase from 2007 to 2008.

This is the largest increase in any group, with single women representing 80 per cent.

Canada has been lauded for its measures to protect economically vulnerable seniors after introducing the guaranteed income supplement. But though the poverty rate in the senior population diminished from the 1970s to the mid-90s, by 2003 it seemed to have reached a plateau and the gap between seniors’ income and other Canadians began to widen.

According to a 2005 policy paper published by the 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.

In the paper, NACA recommended several reforms to the GIS that are similar to the demands of the Federation des Aines du Québec, in a campaign FADOQ is mounting.

These include increasing the GIS to meet the low-income cutoff. At the moment, it falls $110 short per month. For FADOQ, the priority is to contact the 40,000 Quebec seniors who are eligible to receive this benefit but have not or could not apply for it and enable them to access the supplement with full retroactivity.

A light in dark days: Pierre Bourgeois (below) believes changes to the GIS are vital to the war against poverty. He is slowly raising awareness among officials. Photo: Mely Pilom

But even if these people are reached, the benefit of the GIS can be less than it appears at first glance. In the policy paper, NACA declares that it “deplores the cumulative impact of programs that use income as the base for access (such as the GIS) and that confiscate, through taxes, a large chunk of any additional income earned.”

The paper takes an unflinching look at the shortcomings inherent in the GIS and its “clawback component.” For every dollar of additional income earned by a beneficiary already living under the poverty line, the GIS is reduced by 50 cents, taxes rise by 25 cents and the GST credit goes down 5 cents per month. As well, the social housing subsidy goes down by 30 cents and the cost of home care and “meals on wheels” rises by 30 cents.

“Seniors are faced with a multitude of unco-ordinated federal and provincial income-based programs. Any amount of income, however modest … reduces other benefits and increases costs and taxes. As can be seen, the cumulative effects may well be a net loss of income,” NACA concludes.

This lack of co-ordinated services at different levels of government affects seniors negatively, states the National Seniors Council in a February 2009 report. “Eligibility criteria for benefits are often based on income and, consequently, some program benefits are reduced for each dollar earned over a prescribed amount. The end result is that seniors may not see real increases in their incomes or they may lose benefits for which they were once eligible.”

Photo: Kristine Berey

Pierre Bourgeois knows this first hand. When he turned 65 and qualified for GIS, the Habitation à loyer modique social-housing tenant had hoped for some relief. Instead, he saw his rent increase from $180 to $356, more than prescribed by the Régie du Logement. He sees this as profoundly unjust and ageist, since there are other government benefits that are not considered as income in the calculation of the rent in subsidized housing.

“They should have a fixed price for apartments, then go up according to the Régie,” he says.

In the last three years, Bourgeois has started a petition and written impassioned letters to all levels of government, including the Quebec minister of seniors, Marguerite Blais; Municipal Affairs Minister Laurent Lessard; Quebec Premier Jean Charest; the SHQ, responsible for subsidizied housing; the Office Municipal d’Habitation de Montréal; Quebec Finance Minister Raymond Bachand; then-minister of justice Kathleen Weil, and others.

Josiane Lamothe, spokesperson for the SHQ says there is no question of changing the rules. “We consider the regulation fair and justified,” she said. Progress has been slow, and Bourgeois has a 10-inch stack replies acknowledging his correspondance. He is waiting for some concrete support, but meanwhile, he is raising awareness among government officials and seniors’ organizations.

Helene Guay, a lawyer who has volunteered to take on his case pro bono, says that the initiative is in still in a preliminary stage.

“Trying to convince the court that (the law on subsidized housing and GIS) contravenes the charter must be strongly based. (Bourgeois) may have a moral argument and we’re looking into building legal arguments.”

At 71 and with health problems, Bourgeois says he lacks energy, but plans to go as far as he can. He says he is fighting on behalf of 11,000 seniors living in the same situation. “We have more expenses, including medical, a lot of us are not eating three meals a day.” He maintains that the GIS is meant for basic necessities and should not be counted as earned income when calculating the rent in HLM. “It’s wrong because the GIS shouldn’t be used for that. They are taking 25 per cent of something they shouldn’t touch.”



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