A ‘Robin Hood’ Budget for 2016 in Ontario

“Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men
Feared by the bad, loved by the good
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood.”

In the Budget lockup yesterday, I started to silently sing the Robin Hood song that I learned back in the 1950’s as a kid. Robin Hood was the mediaeval archer who took from the rich and gave to the poor. Robin Hood was brave and Kathleen Wynne may be even braver.

There are lots of new sin taxes and levies on the better off that became the fodder for 680 News over the evening and morning hours. There were some great interviews with ‘objective’ listeners who were “unhappy” or who thought the Budget was “ridiculous”.

Cigarettes up by three bucks a carton, wine weighed down by a rollout of additional levies. New higher drug dispensing fees and a new higher deductible for seniors who can afford it. This is not going to be a popular Budget for most people. But on balance, it is going a good Budget for low income people. And that’s a good thing when you think of an Ontario society besieged by an ever growing and yawning gap between the Saks 5th Avenue shopping sunshine listers and the downtrodden in food bank lineups.

One of the standing jokes I share with housing advocate Michael Shapcott is that the best way to read a Budget in a lockup is to read it from back to front. This is because governments tend to put the goodies up front and pepper the back pages with the clinkers. No different this time out.

So here goes: my idiosyncratic top ten observations on Ontario’s Robin Hood Budget of 2016 read from back to front but delivered in no particular order:

  1. A Basic Income experiment

Wow! You have to go back to Dauphin Manitoba in the 1970’s   – over 40 years ago – to find a basic income experiment in Canada. I support it and especially the wording of “… more consistent and predictable support in the context of today’s dynamic labour market”. But here’s the rub. There is a large ‘ethics’ machine in Canada that is not going to like the idea of giving one set of  low income people more money than others in the context of an experiment. That’s why a 40+ year old experiment has not been replicated. My advice is to bring the ethicists in early and find out what type of experiment they are prepared to accept.

  1. The ORPP

Well, it seems to be a ‘go’ and it will be so visible and ‘out there’ that the government will likely stand or fall on it in the next election. Of course if the CPP cannot be moved, it’s a great idea and particularly gratifying that lower income workers will be able to fully participate.

But for gosh sakes, when is the government going to do something about the GAINS-A program? Here is a program that remains completely untouched for 31 years since Treasurer Larry Grossman tinkered with some of the rules. It is offside totally with the ORPP; it is offside with ODSP and OW and is designed to inflict some of the highest marginal effective rates in Canada (if not the highest) on the most destitute of a growing cadre of poor seniors. I will do another blog on this later this year but ‘enough already’.

  1. Child Activity Tax Credit demolition

Here’s one of the items that came on page 330 of a 346 page Budget meaning that the lock-up reader starting from the back would happen upon it in less than a minute of backward speed reading.

It’s one of the real Robin Hood items. Here’s a tax credit that they describe as helping the better off. So they are canning it next year and replacing it with more focused programming to promote physical activity and healthy eating that they say will ‘include’ low income children. Well let’s hope so since they are taking it away from 30,000+ low income families according to their own calculation.

  1. A Portable Housing Benefit

Like the Basic income experiment, here is an initiative that we have awaited for a long time. It’s a first and it appears that it will be subject to experimentation for those fleeing domestic violence. I do have a concern here: I don’t know how much you learn about the efficacy of a portable housing benefit through an experiment such as this. I think the experiment will tell us a lot about how a portable benefit might work in an emergency where someone is forced to move but it won’t tell us much about the vast majority of situations where a portable housing benefit would apply. Let’s watch this one closely.

  1. Re-announcing the municipal upload

There is lots of self-congratulation here about the upload that takes municipalities out of their 225 year participation in the funding of basic social assistance to the poor. But one would have thought that the province would have been much more active in telling municipalities to direct their windfall to the same areas in which they are saving. In a recent blog, I pointed out that the City of Toronto undertook a $6 million anti-poverty strategy while saving $25M in upload dollars and using the remaining $18 million to keep taxes low.

Here’s what they could do. They could start by pointing out that municipalities have at least some responsibility to redirect the upload windfall to the areas from where the savings are coming. They could also start thinking about the unintended consequences of the upload. By 2018, there will be no financial incentive for municipalities to be active in referring OW clients to ODSP. Left alone, I think most municipalities will give up this important role precisely because sharp-eyed municipal CFO’s will see that there is no remaining financial incentive to keep this crucial function.

  1. The ominous sounding ‘Digital by Default’ policy

The whole idea is to make on-line services so easy that Ontarians will prefer them. For low income Ontarians, access to online services is still a challenge and I don’t put it past the Ontario government’s tech community to implement online structures where their impact on low income people has not been thought through. ‘Digital by default’ means that if you don’t hear contrary voices, you just go full speed ahead. Low income people do not always have contrary voices that are heard.

Digital by default will need to be watched closely by the advocacy community.

  1. OSAP changes to help low income students

What can I say? This is the Robin Hood surprise of Budget 2016. It’s a huge change for the better. It’s fairer and increases access for low income students. You have to feel sorry for their predecessors but this is a move in the right direction.

  1. Social Assistance Reform

This is a reform effort – not unlike housing reform – that is a long time coming and always seems to be emerging but never born. It’s interesting that there are no more references to Brighter Prospects so we will also have to see what that means.

In the meantime social assistance rates continue to go in the same direction as the last three years with special increases for singles and increases centred on basic needs rather than shelter benefits. Gone are the days when a percentage increase of any amount applied to everyone. Now certain benefits are being eroded to inflation while others are rising higher than inflation. In some ways this is reform of the benefit structure by stealth and let’s hopes not too much more of it goes on without consultation.

  1. A child support exemption on social assistance

This is one of the time tested hot button issues in social assistance over the last 40 years. The knock against it is that those with better-off estranged partners do better than widows and those whose ‘ex’ is paying nothing or less than he should. The biggest problem on the other side is that women have no incentive to apply for child support. My vote is to provide a flat dollar exemption so that you don’t foster two classes of lone parents – those with high child support and those with little or none. A percentage exemption would result in higher overall incomes for lone parents with high awards; a flat dollar exemption would tend to provide a similar benefit to all.

  1. Employment programs for adults with disabilities

Great idea in that service would be provided to adults with disabilities. The only caution is to make sure that there are no losses in service for people receiving ODSP. When programs ‘go generic’ that is always the worry. Let’s be vigilant and make sure that the ODSP employment supports that work well are not lost in the shuffle.

So that’s it – my own top ten observations on Budget 2016. There’s a lot to like in what has been said but let’s hope that what has been announced will actually come to pass. And let’s hope that the Robin Hood Budget succeeds.

Oh – and you won’t hear me being interviewed on 680 news.

Js/February 26, 2016