Unemployed, without a safety net
MACLEAN'S/CBC NEWS POLL
Canadians foresee a grim future, with jobs even harder to find and social support more diminished
On a chilly Ontario Friday, scores of Toronto parents stuff their small children into warm clothing, tuck them into strollers and converge on the provincial legislature to join day care workers for another of the frequent anti-government protests that have marked the short, stormy history so far of Conservative Premier Mike Harris’s “Common Sense Revolution. ” Some 3,000 people attend the Nov. 24 demonstration, a protest against anticipated cuts to the province’s subsidized day care system. Thousands more join rallies across Ontario as almost 1,200 day care centres shut their doors to let employees and client families take part. But the day is far from an unqualified success as hundreds of other centres decline to lend their support. “There’s concern about what the government might do,” acknowledges Peter Knoepfli, president of the independent Association of Day Care Operators of Ontario, whose 500 centres remain open. “But I don’t think they are about to derail the whole system. ”
A system derailed. That, in fact, is the expectation of many Canadians as the country lurches from one crisis to another. This year's Maclean's/CBC News year-end poll asked respondents to look ahead, to the dawning of a new millennium. They did, and concluded that what they glimpsed of Canada in the year 2000 was not a pretty picture. The responses to questions dealing with personal financial outlook, the country’s economic problems and the future of Canada’s social programs are unprecedentedly pessimistic. What is more, notes pollster Allan Gregg, “the image that emerges is of a population that sees the problems that we have right now deteriorating—with no real prospect of improvement.”
Even in the aftermath of federalism’s near-loss in the Quebec referendum, those concerns are overwhelmingly economic—as they have been in most of the 11 previous Maclean’s year-end polls. At the top of this year’s worst-problem list is unemployment, currently at 9.4 per cent nationally and a major concern of Canadians since even before then-Conservative Leader Brian Mulroney popularized “Jobs, jobs, jobs” as a slogan in his successful 1984 election campaign. With 27 per cent of respondents citing that issue, another 22 per cent picking government spending and the deficit, and seven per cent more focusing on the economy in general, the poll shows that for an outright majority of Canadians—56 per cent—economic concerns are paramount. Against that backdrop, Canadians see the country’s much-vaunted social programs threatened as never before. Among the findings:
• Almost 90 per cent of respondents expect welfare and unemployment insurance programs to be less generous—or eliminated altogether—within five years.
• About 80 per cent forecast less funding, or outright bankruptcy, for the Canada Pension Plan.
JOBS, JOBS, JOBS
Q: What is the biggest problem facing Canada today?
Unemployment........................27% Least likely to choose: British Columbians........17% Most likely to choose: Newfoundlanders.........57%
Government spending/deficit..............22% Least likely to choose: Newfoundlanders .........7% Most likely to choose: British Columbians........32%
National unity/Quebec/bilingualism .........22% Least likely to choose: Albertans..............15% and Quebecers ...........................16% Most likely to choose: Prince Edward Islanders.........................41%
• More than 60 per cent expect free access to health care to be available only to some, based on income, or ended outright
• More than half—53 per cent—think the quality of life for senior citizens will worsen.
The current political landscape certainly features little to inspire optimism among those concerned about the possible erosion of Canada’s social safety net On the contrary—with governments across Canada taking up arms against budget deficits, the pain is hitting home. And the poll demonstrates that, in Alberta particularly, people are beginning to think they have had enough. When Ralph Klein became Alberta’s premier in December, 1992, that province’s budget deficit stood at $3.4 billion. Klein’s Conservative government quickly introduced a Deficit Elimination Act, binding the government to balance the province’s books by 1997. This year’s provincial budget featured a projected deficit of $506 million—a reduction of 85 per cent over three years. But that fiscal success has come at a price: more than 4,500 Alberta civil servants have lost their jobs, hospitals are closing, social support programs are diminishing—and healthcare premiums have risen.
This much is clear: Canadians are convinced that deficits have to be reduced. And on the federal front, poll respondents think there is still a lot of work to be done, with 66 per cent
saying that Ottawa’s efforts at deficit reduction have been inadequate. That general trend is also reflected at the provincial level: when asked if any of the provincial governments have gone too far in their efforts to reduce spending, 63 per cent of respondents across Canada answered No.
It is, however, a qualified No, and by no means a carte blanche for politicians to slash and burn at will. Understandably but perhaps unreasonably, Canadians appear to be saying Yes to deficit reduction— but No to pain. On the one hand, almost 60 per cent agree with the proposition that “the best way to make Canada more prosperous is to cut government spending and get as much money back into the hands of taxpayers as possible so individuals can set their own spending priorities.” On the other, when presented with the option of reducing the deficit even if that reduction “means that some good programs and people might get hurt,” the same percentage think that the government should move slowly. And another nine per cent go even further, to say that the whole issue of the deficit has been exaggerated.
Similarly mixed feelings can be clearly seen at the provincial level—in Canadians’ own backyards. In Alberta, only 49 per cent of respondents think that no provincial government has gone too far in efforts to reduce the deficit. On the other hand, fully 48 per cent there think that their own government has. And one week after Maclean’s took its sounding in mid-November, Klein recognized that, after a $600-million cut to the health-care system and other strong measures, many Albertans are saying enough is enough. Having previously vowed to allow no reversals in his budget-cutting agenda, Klein blinked on Nov. 22. “We’re taking a bit of a detour,” he said, announcing the cancellation of an additional $53-million health-care cut in the current budget year.
Mike and Jane Kelly of Calgary voted for Klein in the 1993 Alberta election, convinced that the Tory leader’s deficit-busting program represented the right choice. Today, the parents of three children aged 14, 13 and 8 are no longer so sure. Some neighbors in their comfortable southwest Calgary neighborhood have been laid off from their civil service jobs. Staff shortages have affected the nursing home where Mike’s great-aunt lives. Jane, 39, who teaches English to adult immigrants, has seen her hourly contract rate reduced by five per cent and the course she teaches reduced from seven to six weeks. “I don’t see enough positive changes to have made the cuts worthwhile,” she says. “Klein has gotten out of touch with the mainstream.” Mike, 38, a regional manager at Toys “R” Us, also expresses reservations—although he remains committed to staying the deficit-cutting course. “Social programs make Canada,” he acknowledges. “But no one can run a deficit and survive. The risk of putting our kids into debt may be too big to take. ” He adds: “We’re stuck between what we think is morally right and the fiscal reality. ”
66% say Ottawa has not gone far enough to reduce the deficit, but...
59% say governments should slow on deficit reduction to reduce the chances of good programs and people being hurt (Women are more likely to say go slow: 69%)
30% say the deficit a serious enough problem that it has to be reduced even if good programs and people get hurt
In Ontario, too, where deficit cutting is also at the core of the new Tory government’s agenda, people are feeling the effects. In its initial cuts last July, the Harris government trimmed about $2 billion from the province’s deficit of almost $11 billion—in large part by slashing the province’s welfare rolls. Then, five days after the day care demonstrations, the other shoe dropped. Finance Minister Ernie Eves announced further cuts totalling $6.3 billion by the fourth year of the Tory mandate.
The rollbacks will hit everything from hospitals, school boards and universities to transit systems, environmental programs and support for the elderly. Ironically, though, provincial day care subsidies escaped the knife. Ontario’s big budget hit did not happen until two weeks after the Maclean’s poll was conducted, but its residents were already starting to feel the pain. Fully 34 per cent in that province said that even at that preliminary stage, the Harris government was being too harsh. And opposition to the Tories’ cuts is only expected to grow: on Dec. 11, an estimated 15,000 workers participated in a one-day antigovernment strike in London, and provincial labor leaders are promising similar work stoppages in other centres in the near future.
Even good news, it seems, is illusory. In late November, Statistics Canada reported that over the first nine months of 1995, unemployment insurance payouts fell to their lowest point since 1990. A reason to cheer because more people are finding work? Hardly. Analysts concluded that UI benefits had simply run out for many people who were still unable to get a job. Shortly after that announcement, Ottawa weighed in with a major UI overhaul. Federal Human Resources Minister Lloyd Axworthy presented his package, with projected savings of some $1.9 billion, as a plan to put Canadians back to work, explaining that part of that money would be reinvested in new job-creation programs. “Theft,” responded social policy activist Maude Barlow. “Savings” meant “cuts”—among them a drop in maximum benefits from $448 a week to $412.50 and a five-week decrease in the coverage period to 45 weeks—and, in the eyes of critics, yet another assault on the country’s beleaguered social safety net
In the end, issues such as too far or not far enough, proceeding quickly or cautiously, become tied to one inescapable fact social programs are perceived to be an integral part of the country’s identity. “Canadians believe that we have a distinct quality of life, and it relates in no small measure to the quality of our social programs,” notes Gregg. ‘The very thing that forms the lifeblood of Canada’s self-image is seen as most threatened.” Perhaps mindful of that—and of the fact that the lifeblood requires government nourishment—Canadians for the most part see the deficit problem as persisting. Only a third of poll respondents expect the deficit actually to be lower by the end of the century. And, despite the pinch that Canadians are feeling now, almost half believe it will be higher.
Albertans top the list of Canadians who think their provincial government has gone too far in its efforts to reduce the deficit Alberta..... 48% Newfoundland 40% Ontario..... 34%
In 1993, after 17years as a professional fund-raiser, Bill Strong, 41, of St. John’s lost his job as executive director of the Newfoundland Lung Association as a result of restructuring. With the provincial economy showing little to cheer about, Strong followed another calling—and enrolled in theological studies to become an Anglican minister. A father of two daughters aged 11 and 14, Strong says the decision has meant sacrifices. “We went from having a new car to a 1986 model,” he notes. “There was one point when we didn’t have a vehicle at all.” Also missing is any feeling of certainty that, economically, the future will get better. “We’ve given up a sense of security,” says Strong, whose wife, Barbara, works as a clerk at Memorial University. “Not even with the ministry is there an assured position. ” Still, he says he and his family are happy with his decision. “We aren’t happy with our financial situation, but I have made losing my job into something positive,”says Strong.
TWO ROUTES TO PROSPERITY
Most likely to think government should cut spending and get money back into the hands of taxpayers: Ontarians..............62% (National.............59%)
Most likely to say government should continue to make significant expenditures in education, training and health care: Newfoundlanders ........44% (National.............38%)
THE ECO FIGHT ON HOLD
One strong indicator of Canadians’ shifting priorities is their attitude towards environmental issues. As recently as the 1989 annual Maclean’s poll, Canadians ranked the environment as the country’s top problem, cited by 18 per cent of respondents—a level challenged that year only by the 15 per cent who were most troubled by the impending arrival of the GST. Now, however, fewer than one per cent of respondents cite the environment as their number 1 concern. Does that mean that Canadians, as a whole, think the problem has been taken care of? Well, no. In fact, while 40 per cent anticipate that, by the year 2000, the quality of the environment will have improved, almost as many—38 per cent—think it will be worse. After a year of battering on the political and economic fronts, Canadians’ minds are definitely not focused on the color green.
Q: When the new century begins, the quality of the environment will be:
In the shadow of the fiery debate over deficits, cutbacks and the future of Canada’s social programs, ordinary Canadians work, raise their children, struggle to make ends meet. Like Bill Strong, many are pessimistic about their personal finances. Also like Strong, many are finding solace in spirituality (page 23). The past year has shown no deterioration in the numbers reporting that their personal financial situation had, to some degree, improved over the past decade—34 per cent in this year’s poll compared with 33 per cent in 1994. On the other hand, the numbers who say their lot has actually worsened have climbed—to 36 per cent from 31 per cent last year.
More troublesome may be the perception that, in economic terms, Canada is becoming increasingly polarized. Asked whether the gap between the haves and the have-nots is likely to widen by the end of the century, 65 per cent of respondents say Yes. That sense of increasing polarization is also evident in responses to other poll questions. For one thing, only 19 per cent of Canadians with an annual household income of less than $20,000 think that deficit reduction should continue even if it causes hardship. But among Canadians earning more than $60,000—the people best able to weather an erosion of the social safety net—more than twice that proportion (42 per cent) counsel full speed ahead, whatever the consequences. And lowincome Canadians are more likely to say their personal financial situation has worsened over the past 10 years—fully 47 per cent, compared with 22 per cent of those in the $60,000-plus range.
That may help explain what appears to be a growing public surliness among Canadians, nicely illustrated by the case of Peter Lougheed. In late November, the former Alberta premier, immensely popular during his four terms in office, underwent triple-bypass surgery at Calgary’s Foothills Hospital. Some Albertans speculated openly that Lougheed must have had preferential treatment within Alberta’s beleaguered health-care system. One Edmonton radio disc jockey quipped that the only way to receive medical treatment in Alberta is to have your name on a hospital—Lougheed’s name, in fact, adorns a Calgary hospital. Such reactions prompted one letter writer to the Calgary Herald to vent her frustration. “I would be happy to step back one place in line to facilitate Lougheed’s treatment,” she wrote. “How many of us are equal to Lougheed in terms of applying our talents to public service? Let’s think about it.”
Most Canadians, though, appear to agree on one thing: life is going to get tougher. Echoing Benjamin Franklin’s dictum that “nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes,” about 70 per cent of respondents, across all income brackets, expect governments to be taking more of their income by the end of the decade. And 43 per cent believe they will have even less time for leisure and recreation. That brings to mind another admonition from Franklin, who tirelessly preached the virtues of thrift, self-sufficiency, personal moderation and putting one’s nose to the grindstone. “Work as if you were to live 100 years, pray as if you were to die tomorrow,” he wrote in 1757. Today, in a time of government cutbacks, shrinking personal expectations and an uncertain future, many Canadians clearly feel that they have no other choice.
With JOHN HOWSE in Calgary and JENNIFER PRITCHETT in Halifax