Documents shed light on seniors poverty figures used by federal Liberals

OTTAWA — Internal government documents say that many of the 57,000 seniors the Liberals say they have helped lift out of poverty only moved above the poverty line when the government changed the measure.

Last August, the federal government adopted, for the first time, an official poverty line based on the income needed to afford a basket of household necessities.

Previously, Canada’s main measure of poverty was the ”low-income cut-off,” a different calculation based on how much a person or household spends on necessities relative to others.

A late-November briefing note for Seniors Minister Filomena Tassi said federal boosts to seniors’ benefits appeared to be highly effective “because there was a concentration of seniors with incomes that placed them just above” the low-income threshold, but below the new poverty line.

When the Liberals increased the guaranteed income supplement (GIS) given to low-income seniors, elderly Canadians in that band were no longer deemed to be in poverty.

On Thursday, Tassi said the additional money is making a material difference in the lives of those 57,000 seniors. As for the number itself, Tassi said “that’s what the statistic is.”

“That GIS increase helped 900,000 seniors, put more money in their pockets and the number is that 57,000 were raised out of poverty. Those are the stats and that’s the reality,” she said at a press conference called to draw attention to the government’s efforts.

The same briefing note, a copy of which was obtained by The Canadian Press under the access-to-information law, also outlined how life could be unaffordable in most of the country under the recently adopted poverty line for low-income seniors reliant on government benefits.

Combined, old-age security payments and the guaranteed income supplement top out around $18,000 a year for single people, which federal officials calculated would push a senior with no income above the national poverty line in just five of the 50 regions into which the government divides the country.

The figure rose to 20 of 50 regions when looking at what benefits can do for a couple with no other income.

Conservative seniors critic Alice Wong said in a statement that the Liberals were “trying to mislead Canadians” about their record in government by “moving the goalposts when it comes to seniors’ poverty.”

On Thursday, the Liberals and Conservatives each tried to paint themselves as the party of choice for seniors heading into this fall’s federal election. Elections Canada research from the 2015 election showed those over age 65 saw the highest turnout rate at the polls of any age group, continuing a trend witnessed in previous votes.

Tassi, who was appointed seniors minister a year ago, argued the Conservatives would undo many of the Liberals’ boosts to benefits and would make life unaffordable for seniors. Wong argued the Liberals have made life too expensive for seniors, which the Conservatives planned to fix, such as by eliminating federal sales tax on home-heating fuels.

The number of Canadian seniors has reached record levels, and their ranks are only expected to grow as more people retire and live longer in retirement — a double-whammy to federal books.

As a result, spending on OAS and GIS is expected to rise to over $100 billion by 2030, and reach almost $250 billion by 2060.

A separate briefing note created in March for the top official at Employment and Social Development Canada, and also obtained under access-to-information law, noted that the demographic change creates “a need to reconsider foundational assumptions around current retirement supports.”

A connected presentation included a slide titled “Incentivizing older workers to stay longer in the labour market,” which noted a skyrocketing number of Canadians working past age 65 over the last decade. Officials blacked out portions of the presentation that provided advice to the government.

Tassi said the Liberals wouldn’t raise the age of eligibility for seniors’ benefits to 67 from 65, as the previous Conservative government proposed, which would keep Canada in the minority of OECD countries not moving in that direction. But she said her party wants to find ways to help Canadians work longer if they want to.

“If seniors want to remain in the workforce, we want to incentivize them to do that. We all benefit when they’re working in the workforce,” she said.

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