Are seniors needy-or greedy?

Despite common perceptions, not all seniors are prosperous

Start a discussion about the financial welfare of seniors in Canada and you’re sure to get some very strong and divergent opinions.

For example, while one of our readers complains about businesses that give “the richest generation discounts, promotions and sales that others can’t have,” another argues that these savings are much needed, benefiting a group that has “a disproportionate number of people living below the poverty line.”

Better off
It’s true that many 65-plus Canadians are better off financially than younger generations, thanks to our retirement income system – including the Canada Pension Plan (which started in 1966), Old Age Security (which became universal in 1952), and employer pension plans.

Along with fewer living expenses in general, families headed by seniors have the highest net worth and lowest debt burden of any group, according to Statistics Canada.

Poverty possible
Yet poverty is a real and growing possibility for many older Canadians – borne out by statistics for our largest urban centre.

The United Way of Grear Toronto documents a doubling in the percentage of seniors using food banks in the five years between 1995 and 2000.

There’s also been a huge increase in the number of older Canadians seeking all-too-scarce subsidized housing.

Apparent contradiction
These apparent contradictions aren’t all that difficult to resolve.

Naturally, a retiree who never worked outside the home and doesn’t qualify for a company pension or CPP would have considerably less income than a senior couple that includes a former breadwinner who’s entitled to both types of income.

Also, immigrants who spent their paid working lives outside Canada are excluded from certain benefits.

So, seeing seniors as a homogeneous, prosperous group is misleading and possibly, dangerous. The reality is that many of our older citizens live on meagre incomes, in fact, in poverty.

Next page: GIS safety net

GIS safety net
The Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) is the most basic social safety net available to older Canadians.

As part of the Old Age Security program, GIS is paid from tax revenues. Single seniors with annual income of $12,648 or less, and pensioner-couples with income of 16,464 or less qualify.

In June 2000, 890,000 women over age 65 were receiving GIS, compared with 484,000 senior men.

A few months ago, the media splashed the startling findings of an independent researcher. There are nearly 400,000 Canadians with incomes low enough to qualify for the GIS who have failed to apply and are not receiving benefits. 

People who don’t apply tend to be unaware because of illiteracy, language and other barriers.

However, it’s come to light that the government had known about this so-called under-subscription problem for eight years and did nothing about it!

CARP lobby
CARP, Canada’s association for the 50 plus, is lobbying the government to pay more attention to the GIS. These include more being done to notify qualified seniors. As well, CARP advocates for more realistic benefit levels and thresholds for GIS qualification

And CARP also want government to extend retroactive payments beyond the 11-month limit.  

Seniors’ advocate Walter Kelm has worked with CARP on various pension issues and has studied Canada’s retirement income system extensively.

“The purpose of the CARP proposals is to draw attention to the plight of these seniors who are on the bottom rungs of the income ladder and, second, to show how their plight might be relieved by timely and responsible government action,” says Kelm.

Crucial supplement
Most of us are lucky enough to be farther up this ladder. For the less fortunate, the GIS represents a crucial monetary supplement to raise the standard of living to an acceptable level for our lowest-income, most vulnerable seniors.

Although a discussion of what defines an acceptable quality of life is too big a question for this space, we can safely say that GIS can be the difference between destitution and subsistence for some seniors.

It is the duty of all of us to see that it reaches as many needy people as possible.