POLITICS
04/30/2020 18:33 EDT | Updated 04/30/2020 19:12 EDT

Minister Says Review Needed For Social Assistance System After Pandemic

The middle class prosperity minister was asked to define “prosperity” earlier this year.

Adrian Wyld/CP
Middle Class Prosperity Minister Mona Fortier responds to a question in the House of Commons on Dec. 13, 2019 in Ottawa.

OTTAWA — The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed an opportunity to reconsider the structure of our social welfare systems, says Canada’s middle class and prosperity minister.

Senior care, health care, caregiver support, and how Canada builds and manages supply chains are potential topics on the table for a post-pandemic discussion, Mona Fortier said in a digital town hall Thursday.

“As we come out of this crisis, I believe we will need to lay the foundation for well-being and prosperity for all Canadians, in an inclusive, sustainable, and resilient way,” Fortier said.

How to sustain and grow Canadians prosperity during this time of crisis has been a hotly debated subject.

Watch: Trudeau warns against opening economy too soon. Story continues below video.

 

A day earlier, Fortier poured cold water on a push by anti-poverty advocates for the government to introduce and implement a crisis universal basic income

Opposition MPs have regularly pressed the government to broaden access to emergency benefits, citing concerns people are still falling through the cracks due to changing eligibility criteria.

The NDP and Greens support the idea a universal basic income can strengthen the social safety net for Canadians.

“We are listening,” Fortier said in French during an in-person sitting of the House of Commons Friday. “These questions deserve to be properly considered and debated in due course, but now is not the time.”

Canada’s economy is at a standstill due to quarantine policies from all levels of government following public health officials’ advice to exercise physical distancing to curb the transmission of COVID-19, a highly contagious disease caused by a novel coronavirus.

Through emergency legislation, Parliament has so far approved $155 billion in financial aid for benefits aimed at workers and businesses impacted by the pandemic. 

Legislation proposing an additional $9 billion to help students was passed by the House Wednesday. The Senate is expected to reconvene Friday to debate the bill.  

Defining ‘prosperity’

According to documents tabled in the House in March, the government defines prosperity as “the state of being successful in material terms and of thriving financially.” 

Other documents stated “fostering the right conditions for Canadians’ material well-being” as one of the government’s primary objectives. But the definition can be broadened, the minister explained, citing “many of the factors that are important in the day-to-day lives of Canadians cannot be measured by income and wealth alone, including access to childcare, access to adequate housing and access to good, well-paying jobs, among other factors.”

A separate document, a written order paper question submitted by Conservative MP Pat Kelly earlier this year, asked the government what indicators bureaucrats will use to track and measure growth for the demographic.

The government’s response to Kelly noted work in this area is “ongoing and more information on the Government’s plan in this respect will be available in due course.”

Nathan Denette/CP
A women covers her face as she walks past a child care centre that's closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on April 10, 2020.

There are some numbers that give an indication of how the Liberals are doing in line to the three broader benchmarks identified by the minister’s office.

According to Statistics Canada data released last year, approximately 1.4 million children (60 per cent) had access to either formal or informal child care in early 2019. Sixty-four per cent of survey respondents said they had “no difficulty” finding early learning and child care. 

In terms of access to adequate housing, StatCan defines “adequate” as “not requiring any major repairs.” Nearly 30 per cent of Canada’s 14.8 million households in 2018 required minor or major repairs. 

There is no official definition, however, of what the government considers a “good paying job.”

Prior to the pandemic, the government touted its record in creating one million jobs in May as proof of growing prosperity. But whatever gains made on that front were obliterated by March due to mass layoffs in the economic fallout from COVID-19.

Identifying Canada’s ‘middle class’

Fortier was appointed minister of middle class prosperity after the Liberals won a minority government in October. According to the Wall Street Journal, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is the first leader of an industrialized economy to appoint a minister dedicated to the middle class.

Despite the high-profile nature of the role, an official definition for “middle class” has proven to be an elusive pursuit.

In December, Trudeau raised eyebrows when asked whom he considers middle class during an interview on Breakfast Television in Toronto.

“Canadians know who’s in the middle class and know what their families are facing and we focus more on the actual issues,” he said at the time. 

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