Commentary: Budget gives Social Development Department little to do

March 23, 2004

This budget was a missed opportunity for Prime Minister Paul Martin to begin to lay out a social vision for the country. In December, the Prime Minister created the Department of Social Development and named socially progressive Liza Frulla as its first minister. Today, she seems to have little to do.

With the government's myopic focus on debt reduction and billions set aside for a contingency fund, there is little left over to address the growing inequalities in Canadian society. By setting a debt reduction goal of 25% of GDP within 10 years, about $28.9 billion will be taken out of program spending. Instead, we could invest that money in social programs, balance the budget each year, and still reach the same debt reduction goal – just one year later! In its rush to pay down the debt, the government is, in effect, simply offloading these costs onto families.

The Liberal promise to re-invest half of surpluses in programs is nothing but a distant memory. Despite the prosperity of the past decade, federal program spending as a share of GDP actually fell by 4.5 percentage points. This year, it will reach 11.8% – hovering near historic lows.

This is a Prime Minister who isn't afraid to set goals, yet this budget is disappointing. There is no comprehensive plan to address the social disparities that now characterize Canadian communities and undermine our future prosperity.

Canadians deserve more than simply an ad hoc approach to social development. Faced with profound change, we must build a new social model. We need a new set of social policies that will integrate economic security and job creation needs, provide high levels of social investment in early childhood programs, education and training, and develop measures that promote greater equality and inclusion of marginalized groups.

Instead, the budget announces a series of piece-meal initiatives such as a learning bond that is supposed to facilitate access to post-secondary education for low- and middle-income Canadians, but fails to offset massive increases in tuition fees. Eighteen years down the road, the Canada Learning Bond will reach $3,000, but by then, it may only cover bus fare to and from school. Is it realistic to expect families who are struggling to pay for child care and rent to be setting money aside for their children's post-secondary education? This is just tinkering around the edges, experimenting with "asset-based" policies, rather than boldly investing in measures that will truly make a difference in the lives of Canadians.

Canada is in a very healthy financial situation and the surplus – this year and in years to come – will, in all likelihood, be greater than government forecasts. At a minimum, we would have expected to see increased funding towards child care and the Canada Child Tax Benefit, further action on affordable housing, measures to address growing poverty among new immigrants and visible minorities, and a more significant investment in Aboriginal communities.

"We must measure our progress by the standard of care we set for the least privileged among us." Those were Paul Martin's words in his acceptance speech at the Liberal leadership convention. By that measure, this budget falls short.


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