Use the tax system to fight poverty

Canada has an inequality problem. Middle-class incomes have stagnated and poverty has risen as the income share of the top 1% has risen dramatically.

How much inequality we are prepared to tolerate is a matter of political choice. Some countries have done better than others, and Canada has not performed well.

Tuesday is the deadline for filing our personal income tax returns. As millions of Canadians sit at their computers and at their kitchen tables working to remit their paperwork, it’s an appropriate moment to consider how changes to our tax and income transfer system could move us to a more equal Canada.

The Broadbent Institute is presenting proposals Tuesday to the Finance Committee of the House of Commons. Our primary recommendation is that Canada establish as a goal the provision of a basic income-tested guarantee to all citizens through a fairer personal income tax system.

The tax/transfer system equalizes income in two important ways. First, progressive income taxes mean that the affluent pay a higher percentage of income than middle and low income earners. Second, these taxes help finance social programs that benefit those who have middle and low incomes more than the affluent.

Our tax/transfer system is modestly re-distributive, but we still have a very unequal distribution of income after the impact of taxes and transfers has been taken into account. And the re-distributive impact of has been declining since the mid-1990s. It’s now 20% below the advanced industrial country average.

Canada must promote greater tax fairness. First, we should act on the long-standing position of anti-child poverty groups that the maximum level of income-tested child benefits should be raised to cover the full cost of raising children. It is deplorable that one in seven Canadian children live in poverty.

Second, Canada should significantly increase the federal Working Income Tax Benefit (WITB) to deal with the growing reality of low pay and precarious work. Increases to the WITB should be matched by incremental increases in minimum wages to raise incomes and also to ensure that income supplements for the working-poor do not become subsidies to low wage employers.

The biggest gap in Canadian income support programs is for the working poor and near poor. Many Canadians move in and out of low paid jobs but fail to obtain a decent standard of living for very long because they cannot find steady work at decent wages. Contributing to the problem is the rise of temporary and part-time jobs, the decline in union representation and major gaps in our Employment Insurance program. These issues must also be addressed.

Credit should be given to the present federal government for creating the WITB, a new form of benefit that has been shown in the U.S. and elsewhere to reduce poverty while promoting employment. However, the current benefit is extremely modest (less than $1,000 for a single person) and is lost completely at low levels of earnings ($18,000 for a single person). The maximum benefit should be increased significantly and phased out slowly as income rises, so that recipients are always better-off if they find more hours of work.

Third, as a long-term goal, we should abolish welfare as it currently exists. Our current system, paid for by the provinces, provides meagre and stigmatizing benefits that leave recipients well below the poverty line. It also creates a “welfare wall” since recipients lose their benefits almost entirely if they take a low paid and insecure job. A negative income tax has been broadly championed across the political spectrum, including by Senator Hugh Segal and the late Tom Kent, the prime architect of Canada’s social reforms of the 1960s. It should be given serious consideration.

Fourth, improvements to income support programs should be financed by making our income tax system fairer. Even as the income share of the top 1% has risen, their effective income tax rate has fallen, from 39.4% to 33.3% since 2000. We should consider changes to address this, scale back special tax breaks that deliver huge benefits primarily to the very well off, e.g. on capital gains, and crack down on tax cheaters. Corporations should be required to pay to clean up their own pollution. Making these changes would help stabilize government finances and restore public trust in the fairness of the tax system.

These concrete steps should be taken now to make our tax and income transfer system a much more effective vehicle for promoting greater equality.

This op-ed originally appeared in the National Post.

Photo: vancouverbcfoodbank. Used under a Creative Commons BY 2.0 licence.