Reports / Articles

July 2002

Can Canada Afford to Help Cities, Provide Social Housing, and End Homelessness?

Why Are Provincial Governments Doing So Little?

 Notes for discussion

J.D. Hulchanski
Centre for Urban and Community Studies, University of Toronto
July 2002

Canada’s Financial Status as of 2001

The Annual Financial Report of the Government of Canada, Fiscal Year 2000-2001 and the Fiscal Reference Tables (published in September 2001) place current expenditures and revenues in the context of 20- and 40-year series of annual public finance data together with selected comparisons to G-7 nations. Most of the data is also provided in a format (as a percentage of GDP) that allows for easy comparison of different years, making the identification of trends possible without worrying about adjustments for inflation (constant/current dollars).

How financially sound and secure is Canada as a nation?  The numbers are impressive.

§         The $36 Billion Budget Surplus.  There have been four consecutive budget surpluses for the first time since the late 1940s. The most recent was $17.1 billion in 2000-01. The four-year total budget surplus is $35.8 Billion.

§         The $17 Billion Pay Down on the Public Debt.  In September 2001 Paul Martin announced the largest ever pay down made on Canada’s public debt: $17.1 billion during 2000-01. As a result of series of such pay downs over the past four years the net public debt as a percentage of the economy (GDP) is now 52% compared to its peak of 71% in 1995-96. Annual expenditure on financing the public debt has, as a result, fallen from a peak of 6.2% of GDP in 1990-91 to 4% of GDP in 2000-01. This is the lowest level in twenty years. 

§         The $2.5 Billion annual savings on public debt interest payments. The smaller debt means annual savings on interest payments on the debt, something the finance minister refers to as the ‘fiscal dividend.’ The net interest savings are now about now about $2.5 billion per year.

§         The $100 Billion in tax cuts announced in the February 2000 budget.  The country was in such good shape financially that the Minister of Finance, several months before the federal election, announced the largest ever tax cut in Canadian history. The tax cuts began in 2001and add up to $100 billion over a five-year period.

§         The 15% of GDP spent by the federal government – down from 24%. Federal Government spending is now 15% of GDP – down from 24%. In addition, the government is now spending a much smaller share of the GDP than it has for decades. Total federal budgetary expenditures are now 15% of GDP compared to 24% two decades ago. (See graph below.)  

Source:  Canada, Dept. of Finance, Fiscal Reference Tables, Sept. 2001, Table 8.

 Federal transfer Payments to the Provinces and Territories

Federal cash transfers to the provinces and territories have been falling dramatically. Over the past twenty years there are three distinct periods.

  1. From 1980 to 1986, the share of federal expenditures that was transferred to the provinces and territories ranged between 4% and 4.6% of GDP.
  1. From 1987 to 1995 the range was between 3.7% and 3.9%. 
  1. From 1996 to the present, federal transfers have been 2.7% to 2.9% of GDP.

In short, huge piles of money that were once transferred to provinces and territories were unilaterally withdrawn. The money mainly helped pay for health, education and welfare.

Another way of looking at these cuts is to examine the share of total budget revenues that federal cash transfers represent. In Ontario, for example, during the first period (1980 to 1986) an average of 17% of provincial revenues came in the form of federal cash transfers. During the second period (1987-1995) this had fallen to an annual average of 13.4%. By the third period (1996-2001), only 9.3% of Ontario’s budget revenues came from federal cash transfers.

The cuts in the second and third periods resulted in the termination of the Established Programs Financing (EPF) approach to federal transfers that was introduced in 1977, as well as the Canada Assistance Plan that was introduced in 1966.

Under the EPF provinces received 13.5 personal income tax (PIT) tax points and 1 corporate income tax (CIT) equalized tax point, plus a cash transfer. The value of tax points would grow as the economy expanded, and the cash transfer was escalated by GNP per capita growth. Entitlements were distributed equally on a per capita basis (i.e., no distinction between ‘have’ and ‘have-not’ provinces).

There were a number of changes in this formula but the most dramatic began in 1986, when the EPF growth rate was reduced from GNP to GNP -2%. Just after the 1988 election the Mulroney government further reduced the EPF growth rate to GNP -3% and then in 1990 imposed a freeze on any further growth. The freeze included federal transfers under the Canada Assistance Plan (transfers for providing cash assistance to low-income Canadians). In addition to the temporary freeze further cuts were introduced for the three ‘have’ provinces (B.C., Alberta and Ontario).

Unfair distribution of the impacts of federal budget cuts

Back in 1990, just as the last recession was taking hold, the Mulroney government put a cap on the amount it would contribute to supporting the needy in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia. Traditionally, Ottawa paid 50 per cent of the cost of welfare, the provinces paid 30 per cent and cities made up the final 20 per cent. But just as the welfare rolls began to shoot up - in Toronto they doubled - Mulroney started spending less on welfare. In a couple of years, the federal contribution had fallen from 50 per cent of the cost of welfare to less than 30 per cent. The Chrétien government, elected in 1993, continued the Mulroney tradition of stinginess to the needy. – David Lewis Stein, “Analysis; Cities push Ottawa to help the homeless,” The Toronto Star, April 5, 1999

The federal and provincial budget cuts did not affect all income groups equally. How did provinces respond to the loss of significant federal revenue? Raise taxes? Some did, for a while. Cut spending programs that are popular with the middle-class voter (health care, education, environment)? Some tried this, but not for long. The easiest response was the most common:  introduce significant cuts in support for poor people. They don’t vote at the same rate as others and when they do, they may not vote for the two major parties.

Severe cuts in income support levels begin in Alberta in 1993. Until that time, most jurisdictions periodically increased their welfare rates. In October 1993 Alberta cut most shelter allowance benefits by $50 a month, and stopped paying damage deposits for welfare recipients. In 1994 Manitoba reduced by 5.8% the maximum shelter rate for employable single people on welfare. In 1994 PEI reduced by 36% the maximum shelter allowance for employable singles.  In 1995 Ontario cut basic social assistance benefits for employable single persons and couples by 21.6% (with equal cut to shelter allowance; e.g., dropping the shelter allowance maximum from $414 to $325 per month). In 1996 Nova Scotia reduced shelter allowances for the same group by 36%, from $350 to $225 a month. By the late 1990s most jurisdictions had either reduced or froze benefit rates for the poorest and most disadvantaged people in Canada. According to the National Welfare Council, from 1986 to 1995, of 48 welfare client groups (4 client categories in each of 12 jurisdictions) tracked by the NCW, 31 (65 percent) saw the real purchasing power of their benefits decline over this eight-year period. (Prince, 1998:838-844)

The Mulroney government cuts in transfer payments to the provinces, though huge (equal to about one-half of a percent of the GDP annually), were in fact quite modest compared to the Chrétien government (equal to a further one percent of GDP annually). Just after the 1993 election both CAP and EPF transfers were frozen at 1993 levels until in 1996-97. Then the 1995 federal Budget announced that EPF and CAP were to be scraped and replaced by the Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST) block fund system starting in 1996-97.

This is the most significant change in both federal transfer policy and federal social welfare policy in 30 years. CAP and EPF replaced with a single, substantially smaller block fund, with fewer federal conditions attached, in the name of federal restraint and ‘flexible federalism.’ From 1995-96, the final fiscal year of CAP and EPF, to 1999-2000, the fourth year of the CHST, total federal cash transfers for these strategic policy areas dropped by $7.4 billion, or 40 percent. (Prince, 1998:828)

The demise of the Canada Assistance Plan CAP represents the loss of the federal government’s main policy instrument for providing (through the provincial and territorial welfare systems) shelter assistance and services for many low-income Canadians. The offloading of costs and the removal of most conditions mean that any federal influence on affordable housing for low-income households through the welfare system is gone. Further, with the CHST, federal leadership in welfare is effectively dead.

As a result of the cuts to social expenditures, the purchasing power of social assistance benefits was lower in 2001 than in 1986, and substantially lower than the peak amounts over the 15 year period (National Council of Welfare, 2002. Table 1 below provides a summary for four provinces.  The 2001 rates are twenty to forty percent lower than the peak rates in these four provinces.  

Table 1: Welfare Benefits in Four of the Largest Provinces, 1986 to 2001

Couple with two children (in constant 2001 dollars)

  1986 Peak (year) 2001 2001 as a % of Peak
Ontario                   $17,060   $22,596 (1992)      $13,452    60%
Quebec                   $15,573     $15,650 (1993)      $12,041   77%
Alberta                                $19,690      $19,690 (1986)   $13,425       68%
B.C.         $15,891   $17,368 (1994)       $13,534   78%

Source:  National Council of Welfare (2002) Welfare Incomes, 2000 and 2001, Ottawa, Table 5A

Even if families on social assistance spend 50% of their benefits on rent (about $7,000 per year), this amounts to only $580 per month for rent.  There are very few one bedroom apartments available in the larger cities for that amount of money. Housing appropriate for families is much more expensive. 

It was during this fifteen-year period that mass homelessness emerged – a form of severe destitution that includes being unhoused. The number of people affected keeps rising and the problem is not limited to the large cities. All lower-income Canadians have been affected by these federal and provincial funding cuts.

Canada’s Total Social Spending Compared to Other Western Nations

Canada’s net social spending has been falling dramatically. In its most recent comparative assessment of social spending in fifteen countries, Canada ranks near the bottom. In addition, Canada’s 1997 spending level, 18.9% of GDP, is a sharp decline from the 1995 level of 20.4% of GDP. No other country in the OECD survey had such a sharp cut in net social spending.

“Total social expenditure” is defined in the OECD research as the provision by public and private institutions of benefits to, and financial contributions targeted at, households and individuals in order to provide support during circumstances that adversely affect their welfare. 

These benefits can be cash transfers, or can be the direct (in-kind) provision of goods and services. Tax system benefits are included. It is ‘net’ meaning after tax (the benefits an individual or household receives minus any tax they pay on the benefits).

The aim is to provide a comparable measure for that part of an economy’s domestic production that is allocated to people in need of social benefits. It is an indicator of the share of resources a nation devoted to meeting social need in 1997 (the latest available data). Data limitations currently preclude analysis of all OECD countries.  

Source:  Willem Adema, Net Social Expenditure, 2nd Edition, Labour Market and Social Policy - Occasional Papers No. 52, Paris: OECD.  August 2001.

Canada, therefore, can do better. The problem is not one of Canada doing too much for its citizens and thereby potentially affecting the country’s competitive situation. Too much has been stripped from one group of Canadians – lower income households.  The burden of fighting the deficit was not equally shared.

Social Implications of Federal and Provincial Fiscal Policies

In nearly every major urban region, the Task Force heard that the shortage of affordable housing is one of the biggest challenges affecting economic competitiveness and quality of life. Municipal governments and housing providers cannot meet the demand for affordable housing and emergency shelter. As more and more people migrate to cities, the pressure to find suitable accommodation has a ripple effect on society as a whole. As competition for existing housing stock intensifies, tenants at the lower end of the market increasingly have no choice but to turn to shelters or remain in already overcrowded conditions.   Interim Report of the Prime Minister’s Caucus Task Force on Urban Issues, April 2002, pp. 17-18

The major policy and program changes over the past twenty years mean that the right to adequate housing, the right to an adequate standard of living, and even the right to live, depends upon having enough money. The income and wealth gap between rich and poor has increased over the past fifteen tears. In Canada, if you have little or no money you have no housing. If you have no housing, your physical and mental health suffers, and you may die. Federal and provincial policies have played a significant role in causing severe housing problems and homelessness and in allowing them to continue and worsen. They can play a significant role in reversing these trends. The social, economic and quality of life implications of fiscal policies tend to be concentrated in our cities and are a major reason for the urban crisis that is now gaining widespread public recognition.

It cannot be claimed that the government lacked knowledge about the problem and/or did not know what to do about it. One of the best blueprints for addressing Canada’s housing problems, including ending homelessness, is contained in a 50-page report written in 1990 by Paul Martin, the former Minister of Finance. The report is called Finding Room: Housing Solutions for the Future. (The full text is available at:

Released after an extensive national consultation, the report contains 25 recommendations to improve the lot of Canada’s houseless population, aboriginal people, renters and low-income homeowners. The report states:

“The federal role in housing must not be a residual one. The connection between housing and other aspects of both social and economic policy means that the federal government must take a lead role.... Our market housing system has not responded adequately to all of society’s needs.... The Task Force believes that ... all Canadians have the right to decent housing, in decent surroundings, at affordable prices.”

This is one of the rare studies where the author, shortly after releasing the report, was in a position to implement it (he became Canada’s finance minister in 1993), but refused to do so.

The death in early February 1999 of “Al”, a homeless man who was sleeping on a heating grate directly under the office of Ontario Premier Mike Harris, along with the death later the same month of Lynn Bluecloud, a homeless woman who was five months pregnant, who died within sight of the Parliament buildings in Ottawa, dramatically underline the consequences of the governments’ actions and inactions. There are concrete identifiable ‘homeless making processes’ and ‘homeless making policies” at work in Canada.

A country as wealthy as Canada can respond to the macro-economic conditions and personal life circumstances of people who become houseless. Canada does not have to let its cities and its lower-income neighbourhoods decline, as happened in the United States. No Canadians ‘need’ to become houseless, penniless and, for those with mental health and substance abuse problems, supportless. The federal, provincial and territorial governments have the authority and the resources to ensure respect for and the implementation of all human rights of all Canadians. The current conditions faced by people who become houseless can be changed and/or ameliorated rather quickly. The processes and policies that produce homelessness are well known and a wide variety of remedial forms of action are available. There is a vast array of policy instruments available and they are technically and financially feasible.

When the United Nations issued its highly critical 1998 report on Canada’s compliance with social and economic rights, it did note, under ‘positive aspects,’ that the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI) ranks Canada at the top, as long as it excludes poverty measures.

“The Committee notes that for the last five years, Canada has been ranked at the top of the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Index (HDI). The HDI indicates that, on average, Canadians enjoy a singularly high standard of living and that Canada has the capacity to achieve a high level of respect for all Covenant rights. That this has not yet been achieved is reflected in the fact that UNDP's Human Poverty Index ranks Canada tenth on the list for industrialized countries.” (para. 3)

The Committee then added that “Canada has the capacity to achieve a high level of respect for all Covenant rights.” As the Department of Finance’s own fiscal data indicates, outlined at the start of this paper, the UN committee was correct.

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