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Seniors are better off than in the past, but you can’t generalize

The stereotype of the impoverished elderly woman surviving on cat food lingers long after the reality has changed. Where in the 1970s some 40 per cent of elderly Canadians lived below the poverty line, today that number is about five per cent.

In fact, seniors today make up the wealthiest generation, the result of having had good jobs with pensions, their penchant for savings during some boom times, and the growth of government supports. There’s also a little matter of their real estate holdings, i.e. the value of their homes.

At five per cent of seniors classified as below the poverty line, that’s half the rate of the working-age population, for instance.

While the reality has changed, government programs remain titled towards older citizens, just as businesses continue to offer seniors’ discounts when it’s actually younger people who are having a harder time of it financially.

Most recently, for instance, the federal government announced it will provide up to $742.4 million in one-time payments to alleviate any financial hardship to those seniors who qualified and received the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB)  in 2020 but who subsequently saw that they counted as income and impacted their GIS or allowance benefits. The one-time payment will compensate such seniors for the full, annualized loss amount.

The image of the senior on a fixed-income struggling to get by endures, however. That said, there are certainly people who still fall into that category. Those older people are being squeezed by today’s high inflation rates, and those living in rental accommodations don’t have the same nest-egg as their counterparts who live in mortgage-free homes that have values massively above their original purchase price.

There’s no one-size-fits-all description of seniors, but it’s clear that today’s over-65 crowd are much better off than those of the 1960s and ’70s, when the stereotypical images developed, suggests Dr. Tammy Schirle, an economics professor at Wilfrid Laurier University.

“The truth is complicated – I think that’s really a good takeaway to begin with, because when we start talking about seniors, it’s hard to characterize what is a typical senior’s experience,” she says. “At the same time, we’re bombarded with the political side of this, where there’s … this trope that you’re talking about. If we’re concerned about inflation, we’re concerned about that poor senior on a fixed income who’s eating cat food from the dollar store. There’s an image there that I don’t think you see much of in reality.”

Schirle notes that a host of government programs have evolved to help keep people out of poverty, especially at the extreme levels seen decades ago. In 1976, the Statistics Canada measure of LICO (low income cut-offs before tax) – income threshold below which a family will devote a much larger share of its income than the average family on the necessities of food, shelter, and clothing – applied to 29 per cent of those over the age of 65. By 2019, that number was 3.9 per cent.

Even for those without significant CPP income, Old Age Security (OAS) and the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) amount to at least $19,218 this year, she points out, adding those payments are adjusted for inflation.

“That’s not incredibly generous. It sort of gets you right up to the poverty line. When you’re thinking about how many people really just kind of almost make it up to that poverty line, we’ve got just over five per cent of seniors over the age of 65 who are just below that poverty line. So there’s certainly a few there,” said Schirle.

“When it comes to thinking about inflation, the key thing is that both of those amounts are adjusted every quarter for inflation. So that first instinct to be very worried about that low-income senior, I kind of set that aside pretty quickly, because those benefits that they’re relying most heavily on are adjusted every quarter for any inflation that happens.”

Where inflation is more problematic for seniors is the middle- and higher-income brackets, as rapidly rising costs make it more difficult to maintain their standard of living.

Not every senior has hit the jackpot, spending winters in the sunny south, for instance.

That not all financial circumstances are the same is abundantly clear to Nancy Lucier, executive director of the Woolwich Seniors Association.

The organization, housed at the Woolwich Memorial Centre, has struggled through the pandemic, its membership and programming fees taking a hit, in some cases dropping to zero. Knowing that many members rely on the organization for social connections, WSA adapted to online options, allowing people to return to in-person events as public health protocols permitted.

“Breaking down some of those stereotypes is really critical. For an organization like ours, where we meet the varying degrees of needs within our senior population, that’s been really important for us,” says Lucier.

“We provide affordable programming and it’s a great way for seniors to connect. This is where the challenge is, to break down some of those longstanding thoughts. We serve a broad population, and so people that are looking for some way to stay connected in their community,” she adds.

It’s a message she’s taken to Woolwich council in seeking financial support to keep the organization going through the pandemic, with a mostly positive reception despite some discussion about the general wealth of today’s seniors versus those of the past.

There’s no arguing, however, that today’s seniors are much better off than in previous decades. That gives rise to questions about equity and why it is older Canadians receive a disproportionate amount of government supports. That observation is even more germane given government reliance on deficit spending and decades-long inability to establish fiscally viable entitlement programs.

Getting their house in order through the likes of a much-improved Canada Pension Plan and sustainably financed entitlement programs would go a long way to not only bettering the lives of retirees, but also reducing the dependence on taking from working-age citizens to pay for today’s recipients … and the long list of past government mistakes.

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