Healthcare, education and pensions: Young and old need to join forces

On the eve of the second decade of the new century, a renewed alliance between young and old would help Canadians trying to make a better life for more citizens. Much of current public policy debate turns around attempts to foster irrational fears about what the future holds. A prime example is attempts to manipulate public opinion by evoking threats an aging population pose for our public healthcare system. The next generation will stagger around covering the debts incurred to look after the health (and income) needs of retirees; we are told this so often people start to believe it.

There is no truth to the idea that young Canadians will need to go without to protect seniors' pensions and healthcare. The issues facing Canadians, whether they be young, old, or in between, have very little to do with the commonly heard assertions about how the aging population threatens the future of healthcare; or, how the young will need to subsidize older Canadians in retirement.

The real division in Canada today is the same one noted by Aristotle in the 5th-century B.C.: the struggle between the rich and the poor. The arguments being make by insurance companies, banks, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (and buttressed by a former prime minister) are largely self-serving. Insurance companies want to collect fees for private medical expenses (which they then fight against re-emboursing), so want to restrict publicly funded healthcare. Banks want to manage retirees' money in return for adding a generous fee to already exorbitant bank charges -- not to see an expanded Canada Pension Plan (CPP) cover more people at less cost. The CFIB specializes in disinformation for its members, arguing that increased employer CPP premiums are unaffordable, when the truth is expanded pension benefits flow directly back into the community where small business make their living.

The commonly heard theme of inter-generational conflict contains at best a half truth. Seniors are well represented among the wealthy. However, many seniors are poor, and many more will become poorer if the Canadian government does not expand, and improve our public pension schemes: the old age pension, the guaranteed income supplement, and, especially, the Canada Pension Plan. Lower income seniors spend what they get, rather than save, and all their income goes back into society. Public pensions represent a transfer payment from those who are working to those who have made a contribution in the past. Both generations benefit from the stronger economy that results from re-distribution. All benefit over their life span.

Creating artificial divisions is a standard political tactic of those who oppose the use of democratic power to enhance well-being. Co-operation across age groups needs to be improved, so that both young and old can benefits from enhanced public services.

Seniors groups need to take the lead in public debate on the importance of reducing child poverty. Grandparents need to point out poor children have poor parents, and explain why reducing income inequality make sense from a public policy point of view.

Aside from a fortunate few, most young people have little in the way of financial resources. Seniors should be at the forefront of those arguing Canadian society must subsidize the education of the young today so as to improve society tomorrow. Who is better placed to understand that education is a public good, which benefits all, which is why all should pay, than people who have benefited from inter-acting with educated people over the course of long lives?

The Canadian Council for Social Development has pointed to an early childhood education policy as an excellent investment in the future. It can be begun immediately, and brings benefits for all over the life span of the children assisted today. While it has been making the case for years CCSA has gotten nowhere with the Liberal and now Conservative governments. A renewed campaign led by seniors groups would help make this important public policy the basis for a rational debate about Canada's future.

Duncan Cameron writes weekly on politics and is president of rabble.ca.

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