That the House: (a) recognize that the elderly were most directly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic; (b) recall that too many of the elderly live in a financially precarious position; (c) acknowledge the collective debt that we owe to those who built Quebec and Canada; and (d) ask the government, in the next budget, to increase the Old Age Security benefit by $110 a month for those aged 65 and more
She said: Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the hon. member for Thérèse-De Blainville.
It is with considerable emotion that I rise on this supply day to speak to the Bloc Québécois motion. We hope that the House will “(a) recognize that the elderly were most directly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic; (b) recall that too many of the elderly live in a financially precarious position; (c) acknowledge the collective debt that we owe to those who built Quebec and Canada; and (d) ask the government, in the next budget, to increase the Old Age Security benefit by $110 a month for those aged 65 and more.”
I would like to remind the House that the reason I am so passionate about this morning's topic is that, before I was elected, I spent two years as a project manager, raising awareness of elder abuse and intimidation. Every day I looked for ways to improve the living conditions of seniors in my region and, taking things one step further, advocate for well-treatment. It did not take me long to realize that there is a direct and, sadly, all-too-frequent connection between financial precarity and vulnerability.
As the first member to speak to this important motion, I would like to focus on three issues. I will start by discussing the precarious financial situation that prevailed long before the pandemic. Then I will explain how the crisis made things even worse for seniors. Finally, I will talk about how the Bloc Québécois has spent years working to improve seniors' buying power.
First, I would like to point out that the Bloc Québécois is not the only party to have recognized that we need to shrink this huge economic gap. During the 2019 election campaign, the Liberals themselves looked seniors straight in the eye and promised to increase old age security benefits by 10% for seniors 75 and up. They reiterated their intent to increase the OAS in the September 2020 throne speech, but it has been radio silence since then and nothing has been done yet. Regardless, we feel that their proposal is just not good enough and that it unfairly creates two classes of seniors, because poverty does not wait until people turn 75.
Now let us take a moment to debunk a few myths. The old age security program is the federal government's principal means of supporting seniors. The two major components of the program are old age security, or OAS, and the guaranteed income supplement, or GIS. The OAS is a taxable monthly pension available to people aged 65 and over. The GIS, meanwhile, is a tax-free monthly benefit available to OAS recipients with an annual income under $18,648, despite the OAS.
The OAS is regulated by the Old Age Security Act and aims to provide a minimum income for people aged 65 and over. This program is not based on benefit funding. In other words, seniors do not need to have paid into it in order to qualify. The OAS provides seniors with a basic income to which they can add income from other sources like the Quebec pension plan or an employer's pension plan, depending on their specific financial situation.
Let us look at some revealing figures. When, despite old age security benefits, income is below $18,648 for a single, widowed, or divorced person, $24,624 when the person's spouse receives the full OAS pension, or still $44,688 when the spouse does not get OAS, the person has access to an additional benefit through the OAS program called the guaranteed income supplement, or GIS.
That is a lot of figures, but the point I am trying to make is that the problem is twofold. Since the pension amounts for seniors are so low, people for whom this is the only source of income are condemned to live below the poverty line.
As of October 2020, people whose only income is old age security and the maximum guaranteed income supplement receive an annual income of $18,358.92, or barely the equivalent of the subsistence level established by the market basket measure, which is between $17,370 and $18,821. In the last quarter of 2020, the federal government increased monthly payments by $1.52 for a total of $18 a year. That is the anemic increase given to the least fortunate who receive the maximum of both benefits.
That is ridiculous. Many seniors who contacted us were outraged because they felt that the Liberals were blatantly laughing at them.
The indexation of benefits is insufficient to cover the increase in the cost of living because seniors spend money on items different from those used to calculate inflation.
Recently, we talked about the Internet, which should also be considered essential because it lets them stay in contact with their loved ones during the pandemic.
The current crisis has created serious financial difficulties for a great number of people, including many seniors. Some seem to think that the economic shutdown does not affect seniors because they are no longer working, but that is not true. First, a good number of them are working, especially older women. In my opinion, this shows the urgency of the measures that are being called for. If they are receiving a pension and feel that they must work, they must not have enough income support.
I am the deputy chair of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women and since the summer I have had the opportunity to study the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women, especially older women. Many seniors want to continue working even if they have reached retirement age.
Some seniors were affected by fluctuations in their investments or retirement savings. They live on a fixed income, and most of them receive a pension. However, the cost of living is going up for them, as it is for everyone, on expenses such as rent, groceries, medication and services. Rent and food prices have gone up because of the pandemic.
Prices in Quebec are estimated to rise by about 4% in 2021, which would surpass general inflation. Prices have also increased because pandemic-related delivery fees have been introduced, there is a shortage of some products and some chains have adopted so-called COVID fees.
The indexation of benefits for the last quarter of 2020 speaks for itself. According to the consumer price index, benefits increased by 0.1% in the quarter from October to December 2020. As I just pointed out, this means that the poorest seniors receiving the maximum amounts of the two benefits get an increase of $1.52. That is not even enough to buy a Tim Hortons coffee. I am in regular contact with representatives from FADOQ, and they have rightly pointed out that this indexation is insulting.
Let us summarize the support measures the government has proposed. We realize that the Canada emergency response benefit, or CERB, was introduced to help people during the pandemic and that it has proven helpful. This $2,000 monthly benefit was deemed adequate for allowing people to live decently during the pandemic. Meanwhile, old age security benefits do not even reach this amount.
In 1975, the old age pension covered 20% of the average industrial wage. Today, it covers about 13%. With our proposal, we aim to raise that coverage to at least 15%. In the end, old age pensions often do not even manage to lift seniors out of poverty.
Increasing seniors' income would not only afford them a better quality of life, which they have long deserved, but also help them face the current crisis and participate in our economic recovery. This has been a priority for the Bloc since well before the pandemic, when we were already asking for a $50 increase to the monthly guaranteed income supplement for people living alone and a $70 increase for couples.
Yes, there was a one-time payment of $300 pour those who receive the old age security pension and $200 for those who receive the guaranteed income supplement. There was also an extra GST/HST payment. These additional measures are welcome in the very specific context of the pandemic, but they were just one-off payments. That is the problem. The insufficient indexing of benefits for seniors was already a problem before the pandemic. It is still a problem and it will continue after the pandemic.
Moreover, here is a little comparison that is quite striking. Former governor general Julie Payette gets a pension for life of almost $150,000 plus an expense account. Seniors would be quite happy with much less. A rise of $110 per month would not change their lives, but it would help. Seniors really feel the impact of the pandemic, and we must look after them because they are also very much isolated and more at risk.
To conclude, I would like to talk about the importance of increasing health transfers. It is also part of what seniors are asking for. They are not interested in national standards. They do not think that will get them a vaccine. There is also a concern about vaccine procurement. We learned that seniors 85 and over would start to be vaccinated, but when will vaccines be available for all seniors who have been living in isolation for much too long?
Finally, I will simply say that we must act for our seniors. They must have a decent income. They must be able to have a much more dignified life. They built Quebec, and they deserve our concern. Their purchasing power must be increased. We have left them in poverty for too long.