Thank you, Mr. Chair and members of the committee, for your invitation.
I am an assistant professor of political management at Kroeger College, Carleton University. My remarks today reflect my views based on my research on social policy and household financial behaviour.
I'm going to touch on two areas of my research very briefly, household savings and financial literacy, and I'll make a very brief nod to the topic of income splitting. What binds this list of topics together really is a central message to you that our personal income tax system is a powerful but incredibly complicated tool for achieving policy aims. Getting it right is really hard.
The system sometimes leads to some surprising and bizarre outcomes, even some outcomes that are hidden right in plain sight. The system is confusing even to experts, and there's clearly more work to be done to ensure that Canadian taxpayers can navigate it to comply with the rules and to access the benefits that are triggered by a tax return.
Finally, any structural changes must be viewed with caution to make sure that we're clear on the policy aim and that we're choosing the best instrument rather than just the best strategic politics.
I'll say more, briefly, on each of these points.
First, and surprising, our income tax system now includes, by my count, four different registered instruments, RRSPs, RESPs, RDSPs, TFSAs, all designed to help working-age adults save up money for various purposes. We should add to this list, by the way, the total exemption of equity in primary residences. It's now the single largest asset held by the majority of working-age Canadians.
When home equity is included, fully half, more than 50%, of the assets owned by the wealthiest households in Canada are now largely sheltered from taxation in this array of registered instruments. This preferential tax treatment no doubt generates important benefits, but it comes at significant fiscal cost. In fact, the total cost of expenditures on these forms of household savings is of an order of magnitude of about 5% of federal budgetary spending.
The overwhelming majority of that tax expenditure is flowing to the already comfortable and the reasonably well off. It seems a bizarre way to run progressive taxation. If we want to help Canadians save and build productive assets we can and should be doing far more for the small savers and low- and modest-wealth households.
On the second point, the need for navigation, two-thirds of Canadian tax filers now rely on a paid tax preparer to file their return. The available research suggests that while paying for tax filing services leads to higher refunds, it also leads to more errors. The government has already taken some steps in addressing this that I think are quite laudable. The CRA is making progress in developing a regulatory framework for the for-profit tax filing services. The financial literacy leader will be coming forward next year with her national strategy on financial literacy, but we already know, of course, that financial literacy is not a magic bullet for tax compliance, for accessing benefits, or for insuring household financial security.
I hope that you'll also consider ways to support the capacity of the hundreds of non-profit and volunteer tax filing services in this country. These are groups like Entraide budgétaire here in Ottawa. They are part of the Financial Literacy Action Network Ottawa. Last year Entraide budgétaire filed tax returns for 2,200 low-income Ottawans. Through those tax returns they were able to access $1.3 million in benefits like the working income tax benefit, the child tax benefit, and the guaranteed income supplement. In fact, CRA now administers 42 different federal benefits and monitors compliance of another 85 provincial benefits, all through the tax system.
Groups like Entraide budgétaire are doing yeomen's work in helping low-income Canadians file their returns. I think CRA is right to leave the non-profit and voluntary tax filing services out of their new regulatory framework, but if we care about compliance, about accuracy, and most of all, about getting tax refunds and benefits into the hands of Canadians, then we also need to ensure that non-profit tax preparers also have the capacity to keep up with demand.
Those benefits, by the way, that are accessed through the tax system are usually based on family rather than on individual income so that we target scarce public dollars to the households that need them most, which brings me to my final point about making structural changes.
There has been debate again about whether we should also base taxation on family rather than on individual income. Others on the panel have spoken and will be speaking to this point in depth. I'll just say very briefly that I would welcome the chance to say more on this during the question period. For now, I would like to note that if the policy goal is to provide support to families with children—families which, by the way, come in all kinds of shapes and sizes—then there are many other more efficient and effective options available to you. As proposed, income splitting will do quite a lot for single-earner couple families who are already comfortable, and essentially nothing for the many single-earner couple households who are already in the lowest tax bracket, all the while taking billions out of the fiscal framework.
Whatever the government decides to do in the next budget, a fundamental shift in our tax regime like changing the basis of taxation should not be done lightly, quietly, or without widespread agreement that the costs are acceptable to the Canadian public as a whole.
I would say that administrative intricacies matter to implementation and need to be thought through and fully explored ahead of time.
Fuzzy promises that end up in practices benefiting a very few families who need little help will, I would say, not make for either good policy or politics.
Thank you very much for your time.