Canada's public pension schemes — which establish a minimum income, or guaranteed annual income (GAI), for Canadians age 65 and over — are being touted as an effective poverty reduction strategy by University of Calgary researchers, who question why the safety net is provided only to those above 65.
A new study finds that turning 65 is a good thing for Canadians struggling to make ends meet, as seniors who enter that bracket have half the prevalence of food insecurity as low-income Canadians under 65 — a phenomenon that study author Daniel Dutton, PhD, who attained his PhD in the Cumming School of Medicine, Department of Community Health Sciences, attributes partly to Canada’s Old Age Security (OAS) program.
Published in the Journal of Canadian Public Policy in September, the study examines food insecurity prevalence among those aged 55 to 74, using seven years of national-level data from the Canadian Community Health Survey.
“For low-income people, turning 65 is like winning the lottery in terms of addressing food insecurity,” says Dutton, a postdoctoral fellow with the Prentice Institute at the University of Lethbridge. “With just a small increase in income, these seniors saw a huge benefit from the stability of the income.”
Canada has one of the lowest elderly poverty rates
In Canada, about 12.9 per cent of Canadians, or 4.3 million people, live on incomes below the low-income cutoff poverty threshold. In contrast, less than six per cent of Canadians over age 65 live on incomes below the poverty threshold — which means Canada has one of the lowest elderly poverty rates of higher-income countries in the world, according to Dutton.
“This research demonstrates that even small amounts of guaranteed annual income can have an important impact on poverty — so the next logical question is why is 65 the magic number?” asks Dutton.
Under the former Conservative government, the age of eligibility for the maximum OAS benefit was set to change incrementally from 65 to 67, but after the 2015 federal election, the new Liberal government announced that the age of eligibility would remain at age 65 — a decision that Dutton says is supported by this study, but merits further consideration.
“Given that the findings of this study demonstrate high levels of food insecurity among the low-income adults we studied, and the association of a GAI with lower food insecurity in low-income seniors, it makes sense that consideration be given to lowering the age of eligibility for OAS,” says Dutton.
Far-reaching policy implications
OAS doesn’t just provide seniors in need with the ability to feed themselves, according to lead author, Dr. Lynn McIntyre, past associate scientific director of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health, at the Cumming School of Medicine.
“The stress of food insecurity, particularly severe food insecurity where food intake is compromised, is associated with poor health, chronic illness, and mental health problems, leading to higher utilization of health services and health-care costs,” says McIntyre.
Seniors 65 years and older account for 44 per cent of all provincial/territorial health spending, despite only accounting for 13.9 per cent of the population, something that McIntyre says could be partially alleviated through access to better nutrition and affordable housing.
McIntyre says she’d like to see the government build on the success of its income supports for seniors — potentially making them available to poor Canadians of all ages, a concept she says is gathering steam.
“The Basic Income movement is building in Canada with pilots planned in Ontario and Quebec and several mayors, including Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, speaking in favour. This study adds important evidence on the positive outcomes of such an initiative,” she says.
O’Brien Institute member Herb Emery, PhD, and Cynthia Kwok PhD, both from the University of Calgary at the time of the study, are co-authors.