Blog: Alberta budget a missed opportunity to improve lives of Albertans
By: Sydney Sheloff and Brett Lambert
With the release of Alberta’s 2022 budget, the provincial government painted a rosy fiscal picture. For the first time in nearly a decade, they tabled a balanced budget and even posted a $511 million surplus. After years of running deficits, one might think this is the optimal time to make some robust investments that would strengthen public services and meaningfully improve the lives of Albertans.
While spending overall is up from previous years, the reality is that with spending levels still below the pace of inflation and population growth, we are falling short when it comes to making a meaningful difference, especially for marginalized and underserved populations.
As with each budget released, the Edmonton Social Planning Council took a deep dive and produced a fact sheet informing the public on what this budget means for social services and the populations they serve.
Rising household expenses are a pressing concern for the average person, with surveys showing more than half of Canadians cannot keep up. Whether it’s higher grocery bills, gas prices, insurance rates, or utility bills, people are feeling the pinch. While many hoped the budget might bring about some form of relief, it appears this was deferred. To combat high natural gas prices, the government will introduce a rebate program starting in October. While this measure will be helpful for the future, it does nothing to address the current pressures we have all been facing during a winter of prolonged cold snaps.
People living on various income supports are facing added pressures. Advocates have been calling for several changes to Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH). First, the current benefit rate of $1,685 a month is far too low to meet basic needs. Many advocates say that raising benefits to the amount Canadians received through the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), $2,000 a month, is a good starting point. Second, in the face of a rising cost of living, AISH payments need to be indexed for inflation. The budget addresses neither of these calls. Instead, they are maintaining current benefit amounts.
Investing in families and children is a key component in ensuring the long-term sustainability of our province. Funding for the Alberta Child and Family Benefit (ACFB) remains on par with the last budget. However, funding before was insufficient. Research has shown that most families are receiving lower payments through the ACFB than through the previous Alberta Child Benefit and Alberta Family and Employment Tax Credit.
The last two years have been particularly traumatic for older Albertans amid the pandemic. While there are some investments in continuing care and home care, seniors living in low income still struggle to make ends meet. While federal pandemic-related support programs were an important lifeline, many of them are winding down and recipients inevitably will return to provincial programs. This includes the Alberta Seniors Benefit (ASB), which provides monthly financial assistance to those aged 65 and older. The maximum monthly benefit for a single person and a couple, $285.92 and $428.83, respectively, remains unchanged.
With AISH, the ACFB and ASB not indexed for inflation, benefits remain stagnant while the cost of living is rising significantly. Month after month, those who are already struggling will find it harder and harder to make ends meet. Income supports must keep up with the rising costs of living.
Ultimately, budgets are inherently political documents that offer a roadmap for where their priorities lie. Posting deficits are often cited as a reason why public services cannot be funded to the level they deserve. In the time of surpluses, one would think it would be the right time to usher in transformational changes and meaningfully expand and strengthen the social safety net. The fact that neither of these were on display in the latest budget is a missed opportunity.
Sydney Sheloff is strategic research co-ordinator for the Edmonton Social Planning Council.
Brett Lambert is research officer for the Edmonton Social Planning Council.
This op-ed originally was published in the Edmonton Journal on March 5, 2022, read the original op-ed here