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Comment: With taxation, politicians should 'do no harm'

When one government initiative actually cancels the good work done by another, seniors pay the price.
A sign outside the Canada Revenue Agency in Ottawa. The agency is relentless in its clawbacks of benefits and supports designed to help seniors, Doreen Marion Gee writes. ADRIAN WYLD, THE CANADIAN PRESS

A commentary by a seniors advocate who lives in Saanich.

If our federal and provincial governments spent as much time supporting low-income seniors as they do designing new ways to inflict more hardship in their lives, there would be more elders leading longer independent lives and fewer ending their days in long-term care.

And when one government initiative actually cancels the good work done by another, seniors pay the price. The result is perpetual poverty for low-income elders, with no hope of ever getting ahead.

Seniors received their federal Old Age Security payments on Jan. 27, a five-week stretch from the last payment on Dec. 21, ­putting a severe strain on older men and women already hurting from record-breaking inflation.

This inhumanity from Ottawa is easily averted by implementing a more reasonable schedule of payments. Under present laws, employers are expected to pay workers within a reasonable time frame month after month and are penalized if they don’t. Many B.C. seniors have no other income, relying solely on federal benefits, and deserve no less.

The absolute irrationality of government decision-making is nowhere more evident than in the federal Canada Revenue Agency. Unfortunately, it is always the most vulnerable ­people directly affected by these ill-conceived decisions who are hurt the most.

It is preposterous and beyond comprehension that some programs are acting against and sabotaging others, nullifying their positive impacts to senior citizens, all within the confines of one bureaucracy, the CRA.

I recently received a form letter from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. about the “one-time top-up to the Canada Housing Benefit” initiative that is administered by Canada Revenue Agency.

The $500 payment “aims to help lower-income renters with the cost of rent,” but only if their income is $20,000 or lower (for singles). But here is the deal-breaker: The ruthless actions of the same Canada Revenue Agency ensure that I do not qualify.

Since 2018, the CRA has been demanding that low-income ­seniors declare anti-poverty benefits and subsidies as “income” on their tax returns. Each year, they add more to the list — seemingly hellbent on making seniors’ lives as hard as possible.

First of all, it was the B.C. bus pass subsidy, then they added the B.C. Seniors’ ­Supplement. Last year, I learned that the CRA wanted me to declare my housing subsidy, B.C. Housing’s Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters (SAFER) grant.

These amounts are not taxable, but I end up losing a lot more: they falsely raise my income, disqualifying me from the income-tested $500 housing benefit that I desperately need.

Using one housing subsidy to cancel another one? Seniors are merely pawns in this Machiavellian conflict of interest within the CRA. It was deeply shocking to hear the palpable excitement of a B.C. ­Housing Client Relations manager, ­gleefully referring to the new CRA requirement for SAFER: “It is about time!”

My infuriating and bewildering experience with Canada Revenue Agency is compounded by the eagerness of the B.C. NDP to get on board.

Supplements and subsidies are not “income” streams — as opposed to employment or pensions — and should be exempt from any declaration on income tax. They ensure that elders are housed and have transportation.

Manipulating them to take things away from seniors, keeping us impoverished and in need, is unconscionable and cruel. Anything that is income-tested is under the axe. The destructive fallout of these new CRA tax policies go far and wide. I have already lost my entire B.C. Tax Credit, enough for a week of food.

Many beneficial community programs are income-tested, such as Leisure Involvement for Everyone (L.I.F.E.), providing seniors in the capital region with discounts and free drop-ins on many valuable social and recreational programs.

However, when the CRA artificially inflates seniors’ incomes, many are disqualified from these exceptional programs that help seniors live happier, healthier and longer lives.

Other valuable and beneficial programs that are suddenly inaccessible to seniors are private housing programs that offer subsidies based on income and legal assistance programs for financially eligible low-income citizens. The human cost of these ruthless tax policies is terrible.

The physicians’ credo, “Do no harm,” should inform government programs for seniors.

All legislation and policies that cause unnecessary hardship to elders should be axed. But only a public inquiry and investigation into the activities of all branches within Canada Revenue Agency — and their associations with B.C. government ministries — will hold politicians accountable to the elders they serve.

The people who implement public policies that affect seniors’ lives must be held responsible for any negative consequences to those precious lives.

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