Trading on the family vote

Tuesday was family day on the campaign trail as all three major parties made their pitch for the family vote. Mind you, the family ain’t what it used to be; not even since Stephen Harper first became prime minister.

Tuesday was family day on the campaign trail as all three major parties made their pitch for the family vote. Mind you, the family ain’t what it used to be; not even since Stephen Harper first became prime minister.

So ask yourself who you think the party leaders are pitching to and judge their promises accordingly.

In the 2006 federal census, we found that for the first time, there are more unmarried adults in Canada than married ones. There are also now more households with no children than with

And single-parent families reached another record: 16 per cent — one in six, significant enough to become a policy target, especially since the majority are in the lower percentiles for income and represent a significant portion of Canada’s school-aged children.

Let’s do a quick comparison of the family-oriented promises made so far. Try not to look at the parties or the leaders; let’s just compare the substance of their statements, and see how much of each appeals to you.

First, the Conservatives. The promised ability for families with children to split income seems pretty inviting. I know I would have liked that in the decade when we had small children and only one income.

But when you look deeper, you find that most of the people who need this break wouldn’t qualify for it or wouldn’t get much from it, and will have to wait until after the next election from this one to even see it exist. That’s not much of a promise, is it?

Single-parent families don’t qualify at all and families where the breadwinner is of average income won’t feel much of a break. This promise — if it were ever to be kept, in that glorious day when Ottawa next balanced its budget — will give thousands to wealthy families and very little to poorer ones.

Presumably, the votes of ordinary workers cost less than the votes of the professional classes.

Perhaps that’s why only three of the 21 industrialized countries in the world employs the policy.

Next, the Liberals. Michael Ignatieff would give high school students a promised extra $1,000 tax grant for four years of post-secondary.

If the policy aligned with current tax law to allow transfers of tax points to parents — those which the student’s tax return doesn’t need — parents might realize immediate extra cash.

A Liberal statement said the program would operate in addition to the tuition tax credit, the Canada student loans program and the Canada student grants program, although it’s reasonable to assume the additional $1,000 income could reduce tax credits claimed, or money given via all these programs.

However, this money will be provided through the Registered Education Savings Plan, a tax-sheltered savings program where the government currently matches part of parents’ contributions.

As good a deal as that is, RESPs go unclaimed by thousands of Canadian families, for many of the same reasons they don’t use RRSPs: they’re tail-over-teakettle in debt and don’t feel any capacity to save, period.

So this plan only benefits families that feel they can afford to save for children’s education, versus paying the mortgage or their credit card debt.

The NDP has a simple plan: cap credit card debt at prime plus five per cent. Sounds good, but you know and I know that when debt becomes cheaper, people just take on more debt. Plus, the banks would likely never agree to it, so there you are.

Here’s a better idea to support families: shave a couple points off the bottom income tax bracket. All families, rich and poor, would benefit, but the benefits would be felt most in the lives of people in lower incomes (think: single parents).

Or increase tax benefits by $1,000 for child care or elder care, for families who pay for either one.

If you’re going to buy votes with tax breaks, why not buy them in areas where they will do some good?

Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.