One year ago today, on May 24, 2015, Rachel Notley was sworn in as the 17th premier of Alberta. True to the principles of inclusion, social justice, and equity which have historically been at the heart of the New Democratic Party in Alberta, Notley pledged to usher in an era of governance inclusive of gender, race, indigeneity, and socio-economic status. In her speech that day, she lauded the diversity of the new Legislative Assembly, describing it as "young and old, gay and straight, and more women than ever before."
A commitment to prioritizing equity issues was again reflected in the new government’s first Speech from the Throne three weeks later, when Lieutenant Governor Lois Mitchell declared, "In this province, what we wish for ourselves, we desire for all. Like freedom from poverty. Freedom from violence. And freedom from discrimination because of who you love. We believe in looking after our children, and making sure they are safe, healthy and have access to excellent education. We believe in looking after our seniors, and making sure they are safe, healthy and have a dignified place to live. We believe in respecting women, including our sisters who have disappeared or have been murdered, and whose families are looking for answers and for justice."
In its first year of government, the NDP has made significant gestures towards implementing these beliefs in practice: becoming the first province to achieve gender parity in cabinet (a cabinet that also currently includes the province’s first openly gay minister) and near-parity within caucus, as well as the first province to create a stand-alone ministry for Status of Women. They have supported the ratification and implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and will collaborate with the federal government on the Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women. The government has taken steps to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour – an important equity issue since 62% of minimum wage earners are women – and has introduced provisions for maternity and parental leave for MLAs.
While these commitments indicate the clear ideological value placed on equity issues by the Notley government, the true test of their monetary value can be found in the budget.
Given the current economic downturn in Alberta, central to Budget 2016 is the attempt to balance costs and benefits in order to “hold the line” on spending by maintaining a balance between supporting essential services without drastic cuts to services or layoffs, while “reining in” spending in the major ministries. The most frequently used word in the government’s budget press release was “stable”: “stable funding for health care, including mental health; stable funding for education, including fully funding enrollment growth; stable funding for post-secondary education, including the post-secondary tuition freeze; stable funding for social services, including Family and Community Support Services and women’s shelters.”
Of the four major ministries (Health, Advanced Education, Human Services, and Education) the first three were allocated funding increases equal to or slightly above inflation plus population growth (estimated at 3%). In the case of Human Services, much of that increase is accounted for by the new Alberta Child Benefit and the Enhanced Alberta Family Tax Credit, which are targeted at lower-income families. For Health, 2016-17 will see operating funding at population plus inflation levels; the following years will be set at 2.8% before dropping to 1.6% as the process of “bending the spending curve” continues. Education, with a 2.5% average increase over three years, will at least fully fund projected new student enrollment (which is projected to see an increase of 1.3%), while schools are also in line to see a large share of infrastructure investment.
In this context, stable means “just enough to maintain the status quo” for front-line services. The NDP’s fiscal approach in Budget 2016 is meant to provide the reassurance of a “steady hand on the tiller” during an economic downturn. But when it comes to achieving social and economic equality for those traditionally marginalized in our province, the status quo is already insufficient.
The often overlooked question is, crucially, who benefits and who bears the costs?
For Paul Kershaw, an advocate for the “sandwich generation,” the budget disproportionately benefits Albertans over 65, and costs those between 25 and 45. In his analysis of what he calls “the most generationally unfair budget in Canada,” Kershaw interprets the minimal increases in the Health and Seniors and Housing ministries as generating an $11,000 per capita spending advantage for seniors over those under 45 years old – a differential that he claims “fosters generational tension [and] pit[s] grandparents against grandchildren.”
Taking a closer look at the major departmental funding allocations, however, we see that this disparity in spending is due primarily to the demographics of healthcare, which at $20.4 billion makes up the largest single chunk of the budget. Of this, approximately 40% is spent on patients aged over 65, who represent around 12% of Alberta’s population. Seniors, Indigenous people, those on lower incomes, and other socially and economically marginalized groups are more likely to access healthcare in greater numbers and for more complex conditions than the average population – yet shouldn’t this prompt a call for more prevention, more programs to reduce the risk of poverty for these groups, and more attention to the structural inequalities that enable this disparity, rather than simply insist they make do with less?
This alternative – to make do with less while taxing more – is precisely the approach taken by the provincial budget for Newfoundland and Labrador, released the same day as Alberta’s. Already it is clear that the most substantial adverse impacts of that budget will be felt by Newfoundland’s lower and middle classes, and rural and remote communities. Does Alberta’s approach of avoiding substantial cuts and hefty tax increases while providing funding to infrastructure, essential services, and social supports produce a more equitable outcome?
Alberta introduced the Alberta Child Benefit (pegged at $147 million in 2016-17 and $196 million per year beginning in 2017-18) to provide up to $2,750 yearly for qualifying families, and added $25 million in enhancements to the Alberta Family Tax Credit. Combined, these measures aim to support over 380,000 children in low-income families. Budget 2016 also included $206 million in enhanced health benefits coverage for low-income adults and children. In addition to these benefits, a total of $480 million in programs spending will be available to help eligible Albertans cover basic costs of living and support them in finding and maintaining jobs.
The budget sets aside nearly $900 million for affordable housing, some of which will be allocated specifically to Indigenous peoples or on First Nations reserves. The remainder will contribute to the affordable housing shortfall facing Alberta’s largest cities.
The Education budget maintains full funding for enrollment growth, ensuring that class sizes can be kept to current levels and each student will receive the current level of funding. This equates to 8,000 new students, and will fund up to 400 new teaching positions, according to the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA). Specialized learning and classroom supports will receive $431 million for Inclusive Education practices to address the educational needs of all students (an increase of $12 million, or 2.9%). However, campaign pledges to implement a full school lunch program and eliminate extraneous school fees have been deferred. As ATA President Mark Ramsankar contends, “These important equity initiatives are even more critical in a struggling economy.” A lunch program will be launched as a pilot program only, targeting a few high-needs schools. School fees, which are charged for everything from busing to lunchtime supervision, disproportionately disadvantage families with two working parents or single-parent households.
Alberta’s budget contains promising initiatives towards gender equality, improving women’s economic security, re-training and apprenticeships for women (along with Indigenous peoples and newcomers), and reducing domestic and intimate partner violence.
The allocation of $7.55 million to the Ministry for the Status of Women may not seem like a huge amount, but it is significant: it is the first budget to fund a stand-alone ministry for women in any Canadian jurisdiction. Of this operating budget, $2.28 million will be allocated towards Gender Equality and Advancement, with a further $2.9 million for Gender Policy, Strategy, and Innovation (including adopting gender-based analysis for policies and programs across government with targets of 25%, 50%, and 75% of government policies in 2016, 2017, and 2018 respectively).
Midwifery services emerged as the big winner in women’s health, with a pledge of an additional $11 million over three years to increase the number of courses of care delivered by midwives. As Parkland outlined earlier this year, midwifery care is in high demand in Alberta, with a waiting list of 1,800 families over and above the 2,776 funded courses of care. While the new funding increase will only begin to make a dent in that wait list, it will allow for some midwives to practice in rural or remote communities in Alberta, which experience the most profound benefits from the service. The move also has implications for the government’s objective of “bending the cost curve” for health spending, as midwifery care often saves thousands of dollars per birth when compared to a hospital delivery by an obstetrician, and reduces the rates of costly caesarian deliveries. As the province negotiates a new funding framework with physicians and begins a move toward team-based care, midwives will have an important role to play in offering a safe and cost-effective alternative.
Another win for women is the preservation of jobs in healthcare, education, and the public sector – some of the most concentrated areas of employment for women in Alberta. A third of working women in Alberta are employed in the public sector, and public sector employment further benefits women as it is the only sector where the pay gap between men and women actually begins to narrow. A bigger win for women’s equality, however, would have been a move to institute legislated pay equity in public sector jobs – a move that, while requiring increases to several salary brackets, would actually generate additional tax revenues for both the provincial and federal governments.
The majority of infrastructure funding ($34 billion over five years) will be invested in the construction and technology sectors, only $10 million has been allocated to retraining programs to encourage women, Indigenous people, and newcomers to enter these traditionally male-dominated jobs.
Alberta’s budget provides funding for an additional 710 beds across the province’s 30 women’s shelters. Data collected from April 2014 to March 2015 by the Alberta Council of Women's Shelters found that shelters accommodated over 5,000 women and almost that many children. During that same time frame over 9,000 women and almost 10,000 children were turned away due to a lack of capacity.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment to women and families is the deferral (yet again) of the government’s pledge for a $25 per day childcare program. This would have a huge impact in enabling women to rejoin the workforce, or to take up less precarious employment in full-time positions. While Alberta cannot (yet) find room in the budget for anything approaching Quebec’s province-wide $7-per-day childcare program, $25 per day childcare would provide a substantial benefit to two-income and single-parent households. Evidence from Quebec shows the substantial economic benefits to universally accessible, affordable childcare, concluding that "women’s labour force participation is 8-12 percent higher than it would have been without the supply of affordable child care. Quebec’s child poverty rate has plummeted by 50 percent. Many parents who cannot find child care are in part time work and patch together child care. Quebec women are least likely to cite child care as the reason for part time work. In contrast, nearly half of Alberta’s part-time women workers say they work part time because they do not have child care."
Instead of introducing a province-wide public childcare program, Budget 2016 takes a band-aid approach by providing $307 million for childcare programs, including $10 million for new initiatives such as implementing an evidence-based practice framework for childcare practitioners, planning to increase access to childcare programs in communities with the most significant space pressures, and developing models for affordable childcare options.
A big positive for equity in the budget is funding for Indigenous women’s initiatives and research, which has increased by $225,000 (an almost 22% increase over last year, and a 50% increase over 2014-2015). However, the operating budget for the Ministry of Indigenous Relations will decrease by over $9 million (representing a 4.6% decrease over the 2015-2016 budget). The ministry’s budget also includes support for 40 Indigenous economic initiatives and partnerships.
Some of the more general measures introduced in the budget will have net positive impacts for Alberta’s First Nations and Métis peoples. It is anticipated that a significant portion of the $900 million set aside for affordable housing will benefit First Nations and Métis people in the province, both on-reserve and in urban areas.
As noted above, a $10 million re-training program was established to encourage women, Indigenous, and newcomers to enter new industries.
Financial and ministerial support was also budgeted to implement the Memorandum of Understanding for First Nations Education in Alberta, and specifically recommendations to eliminate the achievement gap between First Nations and other students. In tandem with this is an investment of $28 million to improve First Nations students’ access to education of the same quality as non-Indigenous students. This funding will “follow” the student, regardless of whether they are school on reserve or in provincial schools.
Budget 2016 includes $365 million to create 2,000 additional long-term care and dementia beds, while an additional $500 million has been allocated for seniors housing infrastructure to address long-neglected maintenance issues in existing facilities.
Proposed legislation to create a new program to help seniors “age in place” was announced the week before the budget: the Seniors’ Home Adaptation and Repair Program would provide low-interest loans of up to $40,000 for eligible renovations to improve seniors’ quality of life in their homes. The loans would not require monthly repayments, and can be held as long as the person owns their home. This program will not only provide more options for seniors, but will reduce the need for long-term care and expensive hospital care by helping seniors to preserve their health and mobility, and enable family or health professionals to care for seniors in their own homes rather than nursing facilities. Parkland’s 2013 report From Bad to Worse: Residential Elder Care in Alberta illustrates how "significant offloading has left many elderly Albertans and their support networks struggling to cope with burdens, both financial and otherwise, that at one point would have been alleviated by the provincial government."
Adequate funding for flexible care arrangements for seniors of all abilities would also begin to relieve some of the financial and emotional costs borne by family members, which more often than falls to women, who take on a disproportionate share of care-giving responsibilities.
When reading Budget 2016 through the lenses of equality, progressivity, and inclusivity, there are some significant examples of progress towards the lofty rhetoric a year ago. However, with the adherence to “holding the line” and “stability,” there are no clear winners in Alberta. Instead there is an attempt to soften the damage being wrought by the economic storm, while promises of substantial change are deferred to better times.
In an interview with the Edmonton Journal midway between the release of the budget and the anniversary of the NDP’s election victory, Premier Notley appeared to affirm her personal commitment to progressive change towards equity, saying, "I wish that I could be three-quarters of the way through building English-Canada’s first public child-care system. I’m not yet, but what we are doing, I think, is setting a course to responding to an economic shock in a way that will not grow disparity and inequality and the suffering of regular Albertans. That’s not the way we’re going to do this."
While her statement promises that the NDP has not moved away from its core values and mission to reduce social and economic inequalities, it – like the budget – suggests that a number these goals come second to the larger economic question, at least for now. This prioritization misses the crucial point that equity-oriented initiatives such as public childcare, pay equity legislation, and parity for Indigenous education and health not only improve the fortunes of the most disadvantaged, but also allows them to become more significant contributors to the economy was a whole. Equity issues are not, therefore, secondary concerns – they are vital to economic growth.
To return to the question of who benefits and who bears the costs, the budget attempts an “equitable” distribution of the impacts. Yet while the budget makes few cuts, it also provides few occasions for celebration: everyone gets a little, but no one yet gets quite enough to make real, lasting change a reality.
Photo credit: Premier of Alberta under a Creative Commons licence.
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