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Tough Luck, Kids

When Harper plays the family card, he cheats.

By Murray Dobbin 17 Sep 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Murray Dobbin writes his State of the Nation column twice monthly for The Tyee.

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Right at home.

You have to hand it to Stephen Harper and the Conservatives and their chutzpa at portraying themselves as pro-family. Virtually all their policies work to undermine the security of families and their quality of life. Unless, of course, you are talking about the families of the wealthy and privileged who have received about 70 per cent of federal personal tax cuts over the past 10 years.

In fact, middle class families have been stripped of social program benefits during that time and almost all of that money "saved" has found its way into the pockets of people who don't need it.

Along the way, Canada has witnessed the biggest transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top in its history.

Of course Stephen Harper is counting on all those facts being swept away with cozy, sweater-clad visuals of him sitting down with a family in Burnaby. Neo-cons also get a huge amount of traction from their so-called pro-life stand. But while they are keen to protect the fetus, as soon as it is born the kid and its parents are on their own.

Less help, from daycare to college

Let's look at one of the first acts of the minority Harper government: the cancelling of a truly historic program announced and funded by the previous Liberal government: the national, universal child care program. This would have been the fist new universal social program in Canada virtually since medicare. It involved years of negotiations with the provinces and was loosely based on the incredibly successful Quebec program. Instead, Harper tossed out chump change of $1200 a year per child. A family with two young kids might well have to pay $2500 a month for child care. That's $2500 a month, not a year.

What about tuition fees? In the "knowledge economy" Harper likes to talk up, the people most likely to thrive are the ones who attend university. That's a no-brainer. Spending money on universities clearly is key to providing skilled workers. Yet there has been no increase in transfer payments to the provinces for universities, meaning that working- and middle-class families have an incredibly difficult time sending their kids to post-secondary institutions (without housing and feeding them for an extra five years). That's the Conservative gift to middle class families: years and years of their children paying back student loans.

One of the most basic needs for families or individuals is housing. Poverty experts tell us that this is the most critical of all the basic needs if we are going to prevent families from spiralling down into hopelessness. Without affordable, decent housing, everything else becomes incredibly difficult and family stability virtually impossible. But Harper has not spent one dollar on new social housing. In places like Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary and Edmonton, families subsisting on low wages pay well over half their income on housing. Housing advocates estimate that 1.5 million Canadian households have seriously inadequate housing.

Breadwinners without jobs? Tough

What happens to families when their bread winner suddenly finds herself out of a job? Well, fewer than 40 per cent of those families can count on receiving a cent from the Employment Insurance program thanks to cuts made by previous Liberal and PC governments. The Conservative government has been asked repeatedly by unions and numerous social agencies to relax the mean-spirited eligibility rules. But Mr. Harper can't quite hear the voices of families who actually depend on it to survive.

In May, Statistics Canada revealed in its 2006 census release on income and earnings that the Canadian median real wage (taking inflation into account) had increased by exactly $53 since 1980. In short, Canadians' standard of living has flat-lined for more than 25 years -- a whole generation. According to the Growing Gap, a study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, "In 2004, the richest 10 per cent of families raising children earned 82 times more than the poorest 10 per cent -- almost triple the ratio of 1976, when they earned 31 times more." When Harper talks about families it's the top 10 per cent he must have in mind.

Safety net shredders

It is precisely when the market fails average wage earners that the so called "social wage" -- that provided collectively through government programs and transfers -- is so critical to ordinary families. But Stephen Harper and his Finance Minister Jim Flaherty made a move last fall to ensure that such programs would never be generously funded again. They implemented the second largest tax cut package in Canadian history (only Paul Martin's were bigger), eliminating $60 billion in government revenue by 2012. Pitched as "economic stimulus," they were in fact a deliberate strategy to further enrich the already well off, and to starve future governments.

Canadians consistently say they want surpluses spent on social programs, so the Conservatives moved to get rid of them altogether. With the impending recession in Canada, this year's projected surplus will likely turn into Canada's first deficit since 1997. And that is exactly what Harper and Flaherty want. That way they can actually begin to cut spending.

Good luck on your own

Without significant increases in corporate taxes and taxes on the wealthy, it is now a virtual certainty that ordinary Canadian families will never enjoy the generous social programs enjoyed by most European families: enhanced maternity leave benefits, livable minimum wages, legislated paid vacation time of up to six weeks a year, genuine unemployment insurance, home care, pharmacare and more. If the Conservatives are re-elected, the continued insecurity of millions of Canadians families is assured.

If there was even a modicum of frankness in Harper's discussion with that family on the first day of the campaign, it would have been a very short conversation indeed. How long does it take to say "Hi, I'm Stephen Harper and I'm here to tell you, you're on your own."

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