Mr. Speaker, once among the poorest members of society, Canada's seniors now have access to a public pension plan and supplementary benefits for those most in need, but it is not all peaches and cream.
The critical issue for many marginal income seniors is that it is still not enough to keep them above the poverty line.
A succession of Liberal governments over the years were instrumental in providing support for Canadian seniors. Liberal governments were responsible for establishing a social safety net for our seniors.
In 1952, the Old Age Security Act established a universal old age security pension at 65 years of age. In 1966, the Canada pension and Quebec pension plans created a pension scheme where working Canadians contributed to a government pension plan to be drawn on upon reaching the retirement age of 65, while some time later amending the scheme to provide for an early retirement at age 60 subject to reduced benefits.
In 1967, the guaranteed income supplement for very low income seniors was instituted to top up our old age security benefits. In 1998, a restructured Canada pension plan was instituted to ensure its sustainability.
Government action to financially secure the public pension system meant that Canada was the only country in the G-7 with a fully balanced public pension plan system assessed by actuarial experts to have long term sustainability.
The Canada pension plan and the old age security are indexed quarterly based on the consumer price index which allows for modest increases in accordance with a comparable increase of the consumer price index. In reality, however, the value of such increases for an individual is literally small change.
In 2005, the guaranteed income supplement benefits for low income seniors was increased by $2.7 billion over two years. This was the first non-cost of living increase since 1984. As a result, the maximum GI supplement was increased to more than $400 per year for a single senior and by almost $700 for a couple.
Successive governments have tried to assist our needy seniors in other ways as well. For instance, Liberal budget 2005 doubled to $10,000 the maximum amount of medical and disability related expenses that caregivers could claim on behalf of their dependants, and further, approximately 240,000 seniors were removed from the tax rolls in 2005 when the basic personal exemption was raised to $10,000.
Under the Conservatives, the government signed into law Bill C-36, An Act to amend the Canada Pension Plan and the Old Age Security Act, which made it easier for the long term contributors to the Canada pension plan to qualify for disability benefits and simplified the application process for the GIS.
In budget 2006, an estimated 85,000 pensioners no longer had to pay income tax as the maximum eligible amount for the pension income rose from $1,000 to $2,000 starting in the 2006 tax year. At the same time, other measures, such as the refundable medical expenses supplement, rose from $760 to $1,000.
Under budget 2007, the Conservatives increased the age limit to 71 from 69 for RRSPs and registered pensions and also permitted pension income splitting for eligible pensioners. The age credit was increased by $1,000, which meant approximately $150 in tax relief for low and modest income seniors. It also permitted phased in retirement, which allowed an employer to simultaneously pay a partial pension to an employee and provide further pension benefits accruals to the employee.
In budget 2008, the current guaranteed income supplement earned income exemption was raised to $3,500 from its maximum level of $500.
Those measure confirmed the concern that our successive governments and all political parties have for our aging citizens and also was a recognition of the financial difficulties many seniors face.
All that being said, however, today in Canada 242,000 seniors still live in poverty, a situation that should be an embarrassment to all members in the House. Behind these numbers and behind these statistics lies a huge human tragedy.
Men and women who made this country what it is today, men and women who built this country all too often sit down to a dinner of tea and toast or go hungry. Many live in substandard housing because they do not have the financial resources to lift themselves out of hovels. Others do not have the financial resources to repair old family residences that have fallen into disrepair, which leads to further disrepair as conditions continue to deteriorate.
In carrying out our responsibilities as members of Parliament, we interact on a frequent basis with our constituents, many of them seniors. I would venture to say that all members of the House have been approached by seniors at one time or another who inquire whether the government could increase their pension benefits a reasonable amount because they just cannot make ends meet anymore.
Seniors' household expenses are rising, including the municipal taxes for those who own their own homes or lease payments for those who rent, energy costs, food costs, even the basic loaf of bread has increased appreciably as the cost of grain and rice have skyrocketed. For those who can afford an aging car, the cost of gas has gone out of sight, while public transportation tickets also escalate. What is worse, our economic predictors suggest that these galloping costs will only continue to increase.
Many of our seniors are faced with such rising costs in their attempt to eke out a meagre existence that far exceeds their pension incomes. The reality is that rising housing costs and living expenses are pushing more seniors back into the workforce. Some have returned to work doing anything that frail bodies will allow until these same frail bodies simply give out.
A Statistics Canada report last year showed that more than two million Canadians aged 55 to 64 were employed or looking for work in 2006, up from one million in 1976. The callous will say that they should have better prepared for their retirement.
What about their employment pensions? Many stay at home parents never had a chance to pay into the Canada pension plan or make modest contributions from part time income. Many of today's seniors never had an employment pension. After 30 or 40 years of service, they walked out the door with their lunch pail. Some may have had pensions but they were not indexed and now, after many years, these pensions bear no relation whatsoever to what it costs to live. Some paid into employee pension plans but these companies have gone bankrupt leaving severely underfunded pension plans or nothing at all.
What are these poor seniors to do? Some will be forced to avail themselves of food banks. Some are taken in by family, if they have one. Some will turn their furnace thermostats down just enough to keep their water pipes from freezing. Sure, they throw on more clothes to keep warm or huddle under a blanket to try to stay healthy, but it is not enough. Some seniors develop colds, respiratory problems or flu, which leads to increased health care costs.
I recall an elderly lady calling my office in tears saying that she could not afford to pay her monthly charges on a heating contract and was seeking our assistance to get out of the contract. I attended her residence on a December day to find a lady in her nineties bundled in sweaters, with the heat turned down, living in a few rooms of her residence with the other parts of the house closed off.
I recall speaking with the president of a seniors club who briefed me on the financial plight of some members. I asked if he could provide me with an anonymous record of some of these seniors' income and expense summaries and was shocked, no, appalled, on how little money they had to cover their expenses. It was not enough to do so. He pleaded with me for our government to do something.
He also told me of a situation where a senior who suffered from incontinence was known to wash out paper diapers because that person could not afford to use these products regularly when needed. These are the actions of an individual in desperate straits.
Bill C-490 would help to respond to the pleas of the president of the seniors club, albeit in a small way. The bill would remove the necessity for an individual, who would otherwise qualify for a supplement, to make an application and would place the responsibility on the minister to provide guaranteed income supplement when income levels indicate a qualification point. The bill would also allow for retroactive payments of supplements. Many times low income seniors are not aware that they may be entitled to benefits and do not apply. Others forget to reapply for supplements. This provision would address this deficiency.
Another situation where a senior couple had retired on their combined CPP and OAS incomes, the death of one of these individuals and the loss of a deceased's pension income can present a severe financial crisis for the survivor at a time when he or she is also trying to cope with the loss of a loved one. The bill would provide interim relief for a transition period of six months for the surviving spouse or common law partner to receive the pension that would have been payable to the deceased spouse or common law partner. This is a humanitarian approach that would not incur huge sums for the Canadian taxpayer but substantial human benefits to a low income senior. The suggested increase of $110 a month would barely raise the threshold to the poverty line.
Bill C-490 is an attempt to address an unfair situation that we as parliamentarians face in our constituency offices on a regular basis. We were elected as advocates for our constituents. The bill is an example of a fulfillment of this responsibility. The bill should be supported by all members of the House.