Should seniors get a break?

It had to happen — just as I am passing into the demographic that seems to get a discount on almost everything, a think tank releases a report suggesting I shouldn’t. The Institute for Research on Public Policy spent a year pondering the economics and ethics of governments giving seniors discounts on taxes, transit, recreation fees, library cards ... pretty well everything that comes with a fee.

It had to happen — just as I am passing into the demographic that seems to get a discount on almost everything, a think tank releases a report suggesting I shouldn’t.

The Institute for Research on Public Policy spent a year pondering the economics and ethics of governments giving seniors discounts on taxes, transit, recreation fees, library cards … pretty well everything that comes with a fee.

Economist Harry Kitchen is the lead author a report titled No Seniors Specials: Financing Municipal Services in Aging Communities. The report is primarily Ontario-based, and it reveals a definite skewing of fee structures based on age in that province.

For instance, a monthly bus pass in Toronto is $100.75, but a senior can get such a pass for $40.75. Now that’s a discount.

In Red Deer, a Go Pass is regular $66, and $58 for a senior — a break, but not a huge break. The city also has a link helping seniors claim a federal GIS subsidy on that pass, effectively bringing it down to $33. That GIS supplement is income-tested, so only the lowest-income seniors get it all.

Kitchen’s report sparked only the briefest of news-chat interest. It doesn’t seem people want to talk about cutting subsidies for the demographic with the highest voting percentages.

The economist does raise some important points that people often get wrong when they talk about our society’s obligations toward our senior citizens.

Kitchen rightly points out that the conditions that created the need for seniors discounts no longer exist in the same way as in the past. Back in the 1960s and ’70s “poor” and “old” could almost be considered synonymous.

Not today. Are there low-income seniors around today? There sure are — I’m one of them.

But there are far more children in Red Deer living below the official poverty line than seniors. We haven’t had a Vital Signs report in Red Deer for a few years, but the most recent one (2011) had 17 per cent of families with children living below low-income cutoffs. That’s 17 per cent of 19 per cent of total population

And their parents pay full fare.

Seniors represented only 9.8 of the population in 2010, and of them, less than 10 per cent lived under low-income cutoff standards.

So Kitchen the economist looks forward to the fast changing Canadian demographic situation, as a tidal wave of wealthy boomers starts to qualify for seniors discounts.

How will cities create stable communities when a large portion of wealthy citizens gets services subsidized by younger families who are just struggling to get by?

His argument is that we can’t afford to wait until we reach a funding crisis for transit, recreation and other services in cities, based on demographics. The longer we wait, he says, the harder it will be to act.

My response would be to meet him halfway on some of this. Guess what? Rich seniors don’t buy that many monthly bus passes, not at the same rate as low-income seniors. So transit — a service of major importance to those seniors who use it — is already pretty much self-income-tested.

Another argument that rankles Kitchen is the concept that seniors have “earned” their discounts. How does one deserve a discount on consumed services simply because they paid for their services in the past?

You pay your taxes this year for garbage pickup this year. It’s not a savings account to get you free years of garbage pickup down the road.

Report critics argue back, saying the seniors discounts on some recreation services are actually a good investment. If an economic barrier is removed for older people to get out, be active, join groups and interact with others, that’s a cheap and effective way to ward off the much higher social costs of depression, poor diet and declining health.

I’m going to say I’m a little insulted by this. If it’s so good for seniors, why not make it good for everyone? Why should a depressed, lonely and low-income person 40 years old have to pay full price to join a fitness group at the Collicutt Centre at $8.50 a session, when a senior with six figures in the bank pays $7.50?

The discussion we need to engage is about how to build a healthy, stable community, where everyone can participate and pay their share.

Just this week, I got a seniors discount on a haircut. When my barber handed me my change, I thought there was some mistake. But I shoved it in my pocket and skipped all the way home.

Not a good start to ethical seniorhood, but I’m old and I’m weak. That’s perhaps why municipal authorities need an early start on what is worth an age-based discount and what might be better off means-tested.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.

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