From deepening income inequality to rising unemployment, Canada faces a wide range of pressing economic challenges that ought to be addressed in next week’s federal budget. Yet little is expected in the way of, for instance, sorely needed measures to address our jobs crisis. Instead, the Conservative government is focused on balancing the budget so it can deliver on its highly political and expensive promise of a pre-election tax break.
According to the C.D. Howe Institute and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Conservative plan to introduce family income splitting will mean some $3 billion per year in lost federal revenues, and some $5 billion per year if the provinces follow suit.
What services and programs will be cut to finance this?
The ongoing slashing in Ottawa holds unsettling clues. Federal cuts to science and our social safety net, as well as the squeeze on transfers to the provinces that support programs like health care, are bound only to get worse. And all this in order to balance the budget for what amounts to a tax gift for the affluent.
Family income splitting would benefit only a small minority of families, giving a big tax break to high-income traditional families with one earner and a stay-at-home spouse, while delivering little or nothing to other families.
The move would allow couples with children under 18 to share up to $50,000 for tax purposes. That translates into a tax cut of more than $6,000 per year for a couple with one person in the top tax bracket. In the case of someone earning more than about $185,000 per year, income-splitting would allow the full amount of $50,000 to be shifted from the top to the bottom tax bracket, thus cutting the tax rate on that money nearly in half.
Single-parent families, already more vulnerable, account for more than one in four children, yet would receive nothing from the tax break. Nor would there be a benefit for working couples with children in which neither parent earns more than about $45,000. That is because both earners are already in the lowest tax bracket.
The math of income-splitting is such that there would be only small savings, if any, where both parents earn between about $45,000 and $135,000. In fact, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the top 5 per cent of all families would see more benefit than the bottom 60 per cent — and 86 per cent of families would see no benefit at all.
This tax measure will be sold as a way to support families who choose to have one parent (usually the mother) stay at home to care for children.
If the Harper government really wanted to expand choices for families with young children in a fair way, it could improve maternity and parental benefits under employment insurance. This program allows for up to one year’s paid leave from work, but benefits are so small — on average, just over $400 per week — that many families have to cut the leave short.
Alternatively, the government could increase child benefits for lower-income families so that families choosing to work fewer hours, and thus to earn less, get more support through higher child tax credits.
The $3 billion that income splitting will drain from federal coffers would be enough to increase federal spending on child tax credits by more than 25 per cent. Or to double current spending on maternity and parental leave benefits. Or to make a significant contribution toward enhanced access to quality child-care programs.
But none of those policies would achieve what the family income splitting proposal is designed achieve: to prop up the traditional family model by encouraging one parent to stay home. Call it Harper’s $3-billion Mad Men giveaway.
No wonder the policy has been actively promoted by social and religious conservative organizations such as REAL Women and Focus on the Family Canada, which have opposed public child care and are strong believers in the traditional single-earner family.
While income splitting will be advertised as a boon to the middle class, it is in fact a gift to the well-off and a surreptitious sop to the socially conservative. It will benefit almost no one else.
It is a sad statement that the No. 1 priority of the government’s upcoming budget is to lay the groundwork to introduce a tax measure that will further increase income inequality while failing to meet the needs of the vast majority of families with young children.
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.