Is Old Age Security a universal program? (Response to Walkom)

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Baseless accusations of infidelity to party principles? That’s a paddlin’

At the Toronto Star, Thomas Walkom has a column describing Jagmeet Singh as “unorthodox” due to his support for a substantially increased, income tested seniors’ benefit (the Canada Seniors Guarantee). In Walkom’s view, this policy would mark a departure from the NDP’s traditional commitment to universal social programs. It would also conflict with the NDP Policy Book’s commitment to “maintaining the universality of Old Age Security.” However, Walkom also admits that Old Age Security is already an income tested program. Benefits are clawed back so that high-income OAS recipients must eventually return all payments to the government.

How can Old Age Security be income tested and universal? The only plausible response, I think, is that OAS can be understood as a form of insurance against poverty in old age. This insurance policy covers every single Canadian, because any Canadian threatened by poverty in old age is eligible to receive OAS payments. In this respect, OAS is a universal program, but it is income tested because of the very nature of the risk it insures against (i.e. low income in old age).

This raises a problem for Walkom’s critique. The NDP’s commitment to maintaining the universality of OAS is only coherent if OAS is in fact currently a universal program. If OAS counts as a universal program in virtue of providing universal insurance against poverty in old age, then Singh’s proposed Canada Seniors Guarantee must count as a universal program as well. Just like OAS, it provides universal insurance against poverty in old age, albeit with more generous payments. So if the NDP has a coherent policy on universality and the OAS, Singh has not in fact departed from that policy. If, on the other hand, OAS is not a universal program, the NDP does not have a coherent policy on universality and the OAS from which to depart. In neither case can Singh’s proposed reform of seniors’ benefits be characterized plausibly as out of step with the traditions of the NDP.

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4 thoughts on “Is Old Age Security a universal program? (Response to Walkom)

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  4. Pingback: On Jagmeet Singh’s social democratic credentials: a response to Rick Salutin | Popcorn Machine

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