Ottawa Editorial On GIS

Many of Canada's poorest seniors aren't getting all the financial support to which they are entitled. Why not? For the explanation, look no further than Human Resources Development Canada.

HRDC oversees the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), a program passed by Parliament to help alleviate poverty among older Canadians. This payment of up to $518 a month is available to seniors whose own resources, including Old Age Security and Canada Pension Plan payouts, don't provide enough to live on.

Yet more than 300,000 seniors -- at least one in five of those eligible -- are not claiming GIS. Manotick social policy consultant Richard Shillington was first to raise the problem publicly while working with St. Christopher House in Toronto, a social service agency which had found that many of its elderly clients weren't receiving the GIS.

Some impoverished elderly may be avoiding the GIS because they don't want a government handout. But many are simply unaware that it is available or are defeated by its sheer complexity.

HRDC says confidentiality rules prevent it consulting files from the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency for information on low-income seniors. For its part, the revenue agency says it has no mandate to alert seniors to their eligibility for the GIS. No one, apparently, is responsible.

Still, after news stories about the problem, HRDC sent a letter to MPs outlining steps it has taken to increase awareness of the GIS among seniors. Those steps include posters and advertisements in seniors' publications. It's a modest start. But more worrisome is that HRDC's letter suggests the department has a limited grasp of its own program.

The GIS is a complex benefit system and there is widespread confusion over income-eligibility thresholds. HRDC's letter adds to the confusion. For example, it says that single clients with an income in excess of $12,456 are ineligible for the GIS program. In fact, this is not the real ceiling on seniors' total income; it's the ceiling on additional income after Old Age Security payments (which may add up to about $5,000 more a year). An individual with an income of, say, $17,000 could still be eligible for a small income supplement.

The amount of the GIS payable is determined by the income a senior gets in addition to OAS income. The amount of GIS is reduced by one dollar for each two dollars of additional income. This means a person who only receives Old Age Security (a maximum of $5,238 a year) can receive the full $518 GIS. When additional income reaches $1,038 a month (that is, $12,456 annually) the GIS entitlement ends.

Interestingly, HRDC's letter states that "GIS benefits are reduced by $1 for every $24 of additional income a client receives." That's needlessly confusing: HRDC is using a monthly figure for the benefit reduction but a yearly figure for income increase. Most people reading this would conclude that the clawback is one dollar for every $24. Wrong: it's one for two.

Anyone trying to scramble through those numbers might be tempted to look for more detail on the HRDC Web site dedicated to this topic. Alas, the site cannot be accessed since HRDC has transposed a letter in the Web address.

Things needn't be so confusing. One simple way to educate seniors would be through a clearer information box on their OAS application form. The current wording on this form says seniors with "little or no income" may be eligible for the GIS. That may mislead them into thinking that only the truly destitute qualify.

That HRDC would find it so difficult to alert poor seniors to this crucial benefit is puzzling. When it came to ensuring that every eligible civil servant (including retirees) got a pay equity cheque, along with advice from Revenue Canada on the most tax-advantageous way of receiving payment, the federal government was highly effective. Surely Canada's seniors deserve at least the same care.

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