The Canadian Safety Net for the Elderly

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Recently various analysts have called attention to the apparent success of the Canadian social assistance system in reducing poverty among the elderly and have suggested that there may be lessons to be drawn from the Canadian experience that are relevant to the evolution of the U.S. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. This article profiles the Canadian system, compares the system to the U.S. SSI program, reviews the consequences for elderly poverty rates, assesses system costs, and then comments on pertinence of the Canadian experience to SSI policy. The Canadian minimum income guarantee for the elderly is substantially more generous than what is provided by the United States, but it is misleading to claim that the Canadian system costs only “slightly more” than the U.S. program. Such a judgment overlooks a key and costly part of the Canadian system, the Old Age Security demogrant. We estimate the total costs to Canada of providing income support for elderly persons receiving a Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) in 2004 to be approximately C$13.3 billion (roughly US$11.1 billion), slightly more than 1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and almost fourteen times the U.S. allocation for SSI and food stamps for elderly SSI recipients. The significance of this commitment is underscored when it is recognized that in 2004 Canadian GDP per capita was just 80 percent of the U.S. level. The Canadian example suggests U.S. policymakers consider better integration of SSI with basic Social Security benefits, experimenting with alternatives to restricting SSI eligibility to individuals with very few assets, and reducing barriers to program access.

Suggested citation
Wiseman, Michael, and Ycas, Martynas. “The Canadian Safety Net for the Elderly.” Social Security Bulletin. Vol. 68, No. 2, 2008.