The CFR Gender and Public Policy seminar

This group brings together about 25 York faculty members and ABD PhD students to discuss their current work in progress. Members come from a range of disciplines: Sociology, Social Work, Law, Women's Studies, Social Science, Political Science, Anthropology, Labour Studies. Their shared interest is in gender and public policy in Canada, with particular expertise in tax policy, child care, employment insurance and other forms of income security, health care.

The group meets monthly and responds to new policy initiatives. Responses are posted on the CFR website and we encourage readers to comment on our responses and to join in discussions about policy directions.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Budget for all Canadians

February 6, 2009
A Budget for all Canadians

In response to the Coalition’s pressure, the 2009 Budget attempts to address the needs of all Canadians. However, the budget ignores women and promises to increase existing inequalities between women and men and among women. This is short-sighted. A range of national and global authorities, including the World Economic Forum and The World Bank, as well as think tanks including the Caledon Institute of Public Policy and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, have all shown that the more equal men and women are in job markets, employment rights, healthcare and education, the better the economy performs – both in terms of growth rates and the quality of outcomes. Why doesn’t the budget recognize that women matter for a vibrant economy?

What could the government do to promote more equal treatment for men and women in ways that would be more economically productive?

We need a budget that recognizes the differences in the economic positions of men and women, as well as their different responsibilities in Canadian society. Women still on average earn about 64% of the average earnings of men. They are concentrated in part-time and precarious employment. They are still the major care providers. Most lone parent households are made up of women and children and 2/3 of them live below the poverty line. A government stimulus package based on infrastructure, with a focus on projects that are “shovel ready” such as highways and bridges ignores these facts. Women need highways and bridges but also need “care ready” projects: child care, elder care, health care, and education. The government’s stimulus package will provide an important incentive to men’s employment. However, if jobs are the issue, why have the labour intensive sectors of health and education, where most women work and which benefit us all directly, been overlooked? What if the government emphasized the need to pay for and extend our social infrastructure, which is central to the functioning of a healthy and just society? Why not restore funding to organizations like the Status of Women Canada who help keep the focus on a care infrastructure for all Canadians? Focusing stimulus on the care infrastructure would raise the income of women, many of whom represent a disproportionate share of the poor and working poor in our society. It would also have broader social and economic benefits related to the way in which we all live our daily lives in homes, schools, communities and work places.

We need a budget that really deals with unemployment. Right now, only about 40% of all workers qualify for Employment Insurance. Employment Insurance benefits need to be increased and be made more available to more people. Both women and men contribute to Employment Insurance – but fewer women quality for payments. Employment Insurance payments put purchasing power into the pockets of recently unemployed workers and subsequently sustain aggregate demand and help to mitigate the effects of recession on the economy –what the famous economist John Maynard Keynes called an automatic stabilizer.

We need a budget that helps women and men enter the job market after years of family caregiving, time on social assistance, as new employees, or as workers forced to retrain after job loss. Many parents depend on child care. In Canada, ¾ of women with young children are in the paid labour force and less than 20% of children outside of Quebec have access to a regulated child care space. In addition, Canadians pay among the highest child care fees in the industrialized world. One way to develop our care infrastructure and to address what has been called the “care gap” is to focus public investment on providing universal access to quality child care across the country. Research shows that for every dollar spent on such care it generates between $2 and $17 for the economy as a whole. Income and other supports could also be extended to individuals in Canada with small children and with elderly relatives for whom they care, to help balance work-family time commitments. Linda Duxbury, a Professor at Carleton University’s School of Business, found that workers in Canada are working longer and longer hours – one in four now works more than 50 hours a week compared to one in 10 in 1991. Longer working hours are linked to declining fertility rates, increasing health costs, and lower productivity amongst workers. So thinking about transfer payments that offset some of the hidden costs of economic downturns and reverse government cutbacks would be a very good investment in Canada's future.

Tax cuts don’t help the lowest income earners. About 38% of women tax filers earn so little income that they have no tax liability. Increasing the paid work attachment of low income lone mothers with children under the age of five, such as by enhancing the Working Income Tax Benefit, doesn’t work when the only jobs available to many are low-paying, part-time, odd hours, and temporary and affordable, reliable, accessible, and flexible child care is scarce. And raising the threshold at which working families can receive the National Child Benefit doesn’t help lone mothers on social assistance whose benefits will still be cut dollar for dollar.

Finally, a budget that addresses the needs of all Canadians needs to include performance measures which allow us to assess the degree to which the stimulus package really works. Does it actually help the poorest members of our society, for example Aboriginal women?

We urge the Harper government and future governments of Canada to initiate a policy and budgetary process that takes into account some of these insights – what is called a gender-responsive budget analysis in other countries. Indeed, some 70 countries around the world, including England, France, Morocco and South Africa, have begun to integrate gender analysis in their approach to economics and are on the road to more effective, efficient and equitable policy-making.

We urge our government to develop budgets for all Canadians. The way that a society treats its poorest and most vulnerable members is perhaps the ultimate test of its commitment to equity, justice and prosperity.

Gender Public Policy Group