Friday, March 12, 2010

Glowing HST report too little, too late

There are two big problems with the economic analysis the government released this week to try and win support for the HST.
It's a year too late.
And it only addresses the questions the Liberal government wanted answered - not the issues British Columbians have with the new harmonized sales tax.
The approach to HST represents one of the great government fumbles. The tax isn't an easy sell, but in Ontario and the Atlantic provinces the governments figured out a way to take it to the public for a real discussion.
Not here. The Liberals vowed not to introduce the HST during the election campaign 10 months ago because it would be bad for B.C.
Weeks after winning the election, they decided to bring in the tax. According to the Liberal line, which isn't convincing many people, they had some sort of epiphany in the weeks after the election.
The HST was suddenly revealed to be not just OK, but critical to the province's future.
The analysis from Jack Mintz, a University of Calgary economist and former head of the C.D. Howe Institute, supports the decision. The government paid him $12,000 for a 12-page report on the impact of the new tax.
It's a great move, he concluded. The HST shifts the costs of government services from businesses to individuals and families.
Companies will pay less tax in capital investments in B.C. - things like new equipment or expanded operations. Lower taxes mean higher return on investment, so companies will choose to invest here rather than in some other jurisdiction. That, mostly, creates jobs.
Mintz estimates that by 2020 the HST will have resulted in $11.5 billion in additional capital investment - new equipment and factories and business start-ups.
Overall, Mintz predicts, the tax will mean a net additional 113,000 jobs by 2020. That's about five per cent more than the current number of jobs.
Mintz has a PhD in economics. I have an English degree and one economics course.
But there are a couple of legitimate questions here.
If the HST was such an obvious way to attract $11.5 billion in investment and bring 113,000 new jobs, why weren't Gordon Campbell and Hansen alert to that possibility a year or two ago? How could they be clued out about the benefits?
And given that this is a big change - a $1.9 billion a year tax shift from business to individuals and families - why is the first analysis being done nine months after the government decided to bring in the new tax?
According to Campbell, the government didn't one study or review of the impact on British Columbia before it decided to introduce the tax. That's an admission of incompetence.
The other problem is that the Mintz review doesn't look at the impact on ordinary British Columbians.
Budget documents show most British Columbians - aside from the poor - will pay more in total taxes to the provincial government this year, with the HST the biggest factor.
The budget offers six examples of the way different people will be affected. Seniors with an income of $30,000 and a single person with income of $25,000 will pay less.
The other four examples provided will pay between 2.1 per cent and and 6.2 per cent more. A family of four with a household income of $60,000 faces a 5.4 per cent increase in provincial taxes and fees.
The review doesn't analyze the higher cost of living as a result of the tax, which TD Economics put at 0.7 per cent. And it doesn't offer any information on the effect on wages.
The HST is quite likely a positive measure.
But the questions for the Liberals remain. If the HST was so great for B.C., why did Campbell reject it during the election campaign? What sort of government introduces a huge tax change with no studies or consultation?
And how can the public trust a party that promises one thing, and does the opposite?
It will take more than a 12-page report to answer those questions.
Footnote: In the small world department, Mintz is a director of Brookfield Asset Management, the effective controlling shareholder in Western Forest Products. WFP was enriched by some $200 million by then forest minister Rich Coleman in 2007, when he released land near Victoria from tree farm licences. The provincial auditor general, in a scathing report, said there was no justification for the gift, no effort to ensure benefits for the public and a failure to even consider the public interest.
Footnote: In the small world department, Mintz is a director of Brookfield Asset Management, the effective controlling shareholder of Western Forest Products. WFP was enriched by some $200 million by then forest minister Rich Coleman in 2007, when he released land near Victoria from tree farm licences. The provincial auditor general, in a damning report, said there was no justification for the gift, no effort to ensure benefits for the public and a failure to even consider the public interest.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Going backward on support for families who step up to help children

The B.C. Association of Social Workers offers informed and balanced analysis. Thus the concerns about changes to supports for grandparents and other family members who step up to care for children should be given serious consideration. Children need families.

MARCH 11, 2010


Effective April 1st, the provincial government will institute changes to support services for family members/family friends who have stepped in to care for a child whose parents cannot look after them. The Child in a Home of a Relative (CIHR) program under the Ministry of Housing and Social Development will be phased out, with no new applications accepted after March 31st, 2010. The new Extended Family Program (EFP) under the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD), heralded by the provincial government as a way to “support strong, stable home environments and ensure the safety and well-being of children and youth who are temporarily unable to live with their parents,” states its most important goal is to “improve outcomes for children and youth.”

The majority of these children will be living with their grandparents. In fact, there are more children being raised by their grandparents in BC than there are in the foster care system. A recent survey by Parent Support Services Society of BC and the University of Victoria School of Social Work indicated that half the grandparents raising their grandchildren had the children placed with them by MCFD. Grandparents have been referred to as ‘the underground foster care system’ for good reason.

The BC Association of Social Workers has reviewed the new Extended Family Program, and has identified some major concerns:

Although anyone currently in receipt of CIHR benefits will continue to be covered under that program until the child reaches the age of majority, after March 31st, the only apparent option for a relative who undertakes the care of a child is through the Extended Family Program. If they do not qualify, they will be left with very few supports – and indeed many will not qualify. Two major flaws are apparent in the planning for the EFP:

• The only gateway to the new program is through the child’s parent, who must request and agree to the arrangement. Too often that parent cannot be found, suffers from a mental illness or addiction, may be incarcerated or street engaged, may have an estranged relationship with the grandparents or simply may be unwilling or unable to cooperate for a variety of reasons.

• The new policy disqualifies any relative with legal guardianship of the child to receive services, even if they have great need. This is despite the fact that MCFD staff and often lawyers advise grandparents (or other relatives) to obtain legal guardianship because of the protection it affords the child and the grandparents in decision making and acquiring services for the child.

Unlike the CIHR plan, which covers children until they age out, the service plan under the Extended Family Program will be reviewed every six months, and supports will continue “as long as there is an assessed need and the parent agrees that the out-of-home placement remains the best option for the child.” This leaves relatives unable to plan far into the future as all or some supports could disappear in a very short time. The agreements are “not expected to continue beyond 24 months maximum... unless an assessment of the child’s needs supports a longer timeline.” Two years in the life of a child who has likely experienced substantial turmoil, and whose parents may have chronic problems that interfere with their ability to parent, is extraordinarily brief. Many grandparents hope that their child will be able to parent again when well. Sometimes that is possible. Often the children stay with their grandparents until they are grown or the grandparents are too old or ill to care for them. But this program can only assure them they will receive help for between 6 and 24 months.

As for the screenings and assessments, we are concerned that these procedures now become the responsibility of MCFD. No new funding or staffing has been allocated to handle the additional workloads in an already under-resourced ministry. While we support the need for in- depth assessments, adding this task to social work caseloads which are already too high in most regions will only result in critical delays across the board to families needing help, and create untenable situations for professional staff.

We do not note any appeal system for people refused under the new program, nor is there any increased advocacy funding or service to assist with navigation, clarification, problem solving etc. In fact, it has been reduced, with the elimination of LawLINE, which was often the first step in receiving legal rights information.

We applaud the services the new Extended Family Program will provide – financial help, respite care, medical, optical and dental benefits, increased access to counselling services – it’s all good. But why, we ask, has this program been designed to deliberately exclude many of the families who need it most – the family members who cannot locate or have an estranged relationship with the child’s parent, the grandparents or other relatives who fought for legal guardianship to protect the child’s best interests – many of whom live near or beneath the poverty line or struggle on fixed incomes, and who have undertaken responsibility for a child or children who may have many special needs.

Currently, 4500 families receive benefits under CIHR and less than 200 under Kith and Kin agreements. With the tight screening criteria of the Extended Family Program, it is likely that few families will qualify. For those who do, it will be a wonderful benefit. For the vast majority who do not, it will be devastating.

BCASW asks the government to review this program in the light of our concerns, and institute the changes that will ensure no children are excluded from the help they need to live in a safe and secure family environment. Specifically, we ask that:

• Legal guardians be considered eligible for the EFP • Caregivers be allowed to apply for the EFP in circumstances that preclude a parent from giving consent
• The program be reframed from a ‘temporary’ stopgap to one that offers help until a child reaches the age of majority, where it is in the child’s best interests. • Funding be increased to MCFD to handle the additional workload • MCFD establish an external advisory body that includes social workers, legal advocates and other stakeholders
• MCFD recognize the unique hardships and contributions of grandparents and other relatives/close family friends and demonstrate its commitment to supporting children to remain with extended family on a long term basis if needed.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Health care cuts for disabled cost us all

The latest cuts to health services for the poorest British Columbians crossed a line.
The income assistance and disability benefit cuts are cruel, wasteful and petty.
And the hypocrisy and contempt for the public - everyone, not just those disabled and poor people hurt by the cuts - is shameful.
The cuts weren't announced as part of the budget last week or included in the ministry's service plan.
Instead, the public affairs bureau - the government's $26-million-a-year communications arm - put out a news release headlined "Province protects services for low-income clients."
In fact, it was cutting services for those people.
The basic goal is to reduce the health benefits for people living on provincial disability benefits and income assistance.
They are already dirt poor. A disabled person in B.C., unable to work and with no other income, gets $906 a month, with $375 of that for housing. That's $10,872 a year, including $4,500 for housing.
Meanwhile, MLAs can claim up to $19,000 just for an apartment to use while they’re in Victoria. And Rich Coleman, the minister responsible for income assistance, billed taxpayers $18,654 in the most recent reporting period just for meals and accommodation while he was in the capital.
Yet he says people paying all their bills from an income barely half that much should find money for medical costs (most of which MLAs don't have to pay).
Disability and income assistance benefits have included some medical equipment and supplies necessary "to help reduce serious health risks."
But the program was too generous, the government decided.
For example, the benefit plan recognized that people on income assistance or disability benefits couldn't afford birth control and covered the cost of IUDs. No more.
So people who were not good at taking birth control pills or couldn't use them for medical reasons are now at greater risk of pregnancy. The result will be more unwanted children born to poor families, or more abortions. Neither seems desirable for a sensible government.
The government will no longer pay for medical testing devices such as glucometers for diabetics. People with the illness - often called a disease of poverty - are supposed to find the money themselves out of an income equivalent to a full-time job paying $5.75 an hour.
Most won't. Glucometers are essential for measuring glucose levels in the blood and managing diabetes. Without monitoring, which lets individuals manage their illness, the risks of medical complications and much more expensive care rise sharply.
What can be dumber than measures that increase illness, abortions and unwanted pregnancies?
And what can be smaller than beating up on these people to save, in the case of the cuts to medical equipment and supplies, $3 million this year and $6 million next year?
The government had no hesitation in giving MLAs a raise last April (though salaries are frozen this year). And it spent $16.4 million last year to enrich pensions for MLAs - more than all these cuts to the vulnerable will save annually.
Petty and wasteful seem covered.
Cruel is more subjective. But consider this cut. The government has provided a minimum shelter allowance to people between 59 and 65 even if they were homeless or not paying rent. It was only $75 a month, but it helped.
Now it's taking that money away.
So a 62-year-old woman who had been getting by on the basic disability income - $531 a month - plus the $75 shelter allowance, will now face a 12-per-cent cut in income.
If she makes it to 65, the federal pension of $1,170 a month will be will be $640 higher than the amount the Liberal government thinks seniors should be able to survive on.
The Liberals didn't run on cuts to support for disabled British Columbians.
And Coleman has no studies or analysis to show this makes sense. It would be hard to find a doctor in B.C., outside the Liberal caucus, at least, who would support them.
Dumb, small, mean - and incompetent.
Footnote: Coleman said the cuts are needed because more people are on income assistance. That hardly seems unexpected. The economic slowdown has meant more people have lost their jobs. For too many, once EI benefits and their savings run out, income assistance is the only option.