Since taking office, our government has acted decisively on its commitment to protect the security of Canadian seniors. This government cares deeply about the many contributions that today's seniors have made and continue to make to our society. These seniors raised families, they helped to build up our national economy and they made vital contributions to our health, safety, education and culture. Furthermore, many Canadian seniors are veterans who risked their lives to preserve our freedom.
For these reasons and many more, our government will continue to do its utmost to ensure that Canadian seniors are treated with dignity. We will ensure that they receive the full respect they deserve.
All Canadians can be proud that the guaranteed income supplement, or the GIS, has played an important role in reducing the incidence of poverty among seniors. As my colleague pointed out a few minutes ago, the poverty rate among seniors has declined dramatically over the past 25 years. The average income for seniors in that time has doubled.
Bill C-490 proposes that the monthly GIS payment be increased by $110 to reduce poverty among low income seniors. In fact, Canada already has one of the lowest levels of poverty among seniors of any country in the industrialized world. This makes us the envy of many other nations, including Sweden, the United States and the United Kingdom.
Furthermore, when this government was elected, we raised the GIS by 3.5% and we did it again in January 2007. This amounts to an additional $36 per month for single seniors and $58 per month for couples. These increases will raise the total GIS benefit by more than $2.7 billion over the next five years. It will benefit more than 1.6 million GIS recipients, including more than 50,000 seniors who were not eligible for the program under the previous Liberal government.
By proposing a $110 per month increase for all GIS recipients, Bill C-490 would not be focusing on seniors who are most in need, and this is not the responsible thing to do.
In addition, the bill proposes unlimited retroactivity for the GIS. The cost of such a measure would be enormous. It would be as high as $6 billion. We are confident that the current one year retroactivity provision of old age security and GIS benefits reasonably accommodates delays or oversights for applying for the benefits. I also want to clarify that these benefits have been designed to help low income seniors meet their current needs. They are not there to address past needs.
We make every effort to ensure that eligible low income seniors receive the benefits to which they are entitled just as soon as possible. This includes sending out GIS applications to low income seniors identified through the tax system as not currently receiving the supplement. This measure has put GIS benefits in the hands of an additional 325,000 low income seniors. As well, we work with community and seniors' organizations to reach the vulnerable seniors who are not on the tax roles.
Furthermore, as a result of Bill C-36, seniors now only have to apply once for the GIS. They will then automatically receive the benefit in any year they are eligible, as long as they file a tax return.
All these measures reduce the likelihood of eligible seniors missing out on GIS benefits to which they are entitled as well as the need for retroactive payments.
I would also like to respond to the proposal in Bill C-490 that a surviving spouse be allowed to receive his or her deceased spouse's pension payment for six months. Such a measure would raise a major equity issue. Newly widowed persons would temporarily receive higher benefits than other single seniors living on single incomes.
Finally, Bill C-490 proposes that the requirement for seniors to apply for GIS benefits be eliminated altogether. We require a formal application because the information available from the Canada Revenue Agency is not always sufficient to determine a person's eligibility. As well, some Canadian seniors choose not to receive the GIS for personal reasons. That is a decision that we must respect.
We also recognize and respect the choice of many of today's seniors to continue working. To assist low income seniors who choose to work, budget 2008 proposes to invest $60 million per year to increase the GIS earnings exemption. This important measure would exempt fully the first $3,500 of earnings and the average earnings of working seniors who receive the GIS. Low income seniors who want to remain in the workforce would, therefore, be able to keep more of their GIS benefits. Nearly 100,000 low income seniors will benefit.
The budget also proposes to extend the targeted initiative for older workers until 2012. It would add $90 million to the federal-provincial employment program for unemployed older workers in vulnerable communities to help them stay active in the workforce.
Budget 2008 made crucial investments on behalf of seniors by addressing the problem of elder abuse in all its ugly forms. Over three years, our government will invest $13 million to help seniors and others recognize the signs and symptoms of elder abuse and to provide information on available support.
I believe our government's creation last year of the position of Secretary of State for Seniors speaks directly to our promise to ensure the continued well-being of all Canadians aged 65 and up. We also established the National Seniors Council to advise us on seniors' issues of national importance. It will help to ensure that our policies, programs and services meet the evolving needs of Canada's aging population.
In February 2008, after its consultations on elder abuse, the council began a Canada-wide series of round tables. They were designed to better understand the challenges of seniors living on low incomes, particularly senior women. My remarks clearly show that our government takes the needs of Canadian seniors very seriously.
Since taking office, we have responded to those needs decisively. This includes the monthly increases to the GIS in 2006-07, as I have mentioned before. Our policies and programs are working and they are working in a very concrete and concerted way to support Canadian seniors' well-being and financial security.
The proposals contained in Bill C-490, on the other hand, would require enormous financial investments that would not be targeted to those most in need.
For those crucial reasons, and they are crucial, our government cannot support Bill C-490.