Federal Budget 2021: Liberals seek to win over low wage workers and students
By Christopher Reynolds
OTTAWA – The federal government is looking to give workers and students a leg up with a budget that commits billions to training, benefits and debt relief, as those hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic try to dust themselves off.
The first Liberal budget in more than two years aims to create 500,000 training and work opportunities. It pledges $2.4 billion over three years to developing skills and trades, with about 40 per cent earmarked for training in sectors ranging from manufacturing to health care to construction.
It adds on $8.9 billion more to beef up the Canada Workers Benefit in a boost to low-wage workers, who will have a higher income threshold at which their benefit starts to shrink.
“Low-wage workers in Canada work harder than anyone else in this country, for less pay. In the past year they’ve faced both significant infection risks and layoffs. And many live below the poverty line, even though they work full-time,” Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said Monday.
The benefit boost will extend income top-ups to about a million more Canadians and lift nearly 100,000 people out of poverty, she said.
Genevieve Tellier, a political science professor from the University of Ottawa, says the emphasis on training and the added work incentive represent a “market-oriented vision” of government assistance. Low-wage workers can now earn more before seeing their benefit reduced, she noted.
“They are saying you can work and not be penalized, up to a certain point,” she said.
Notably absent from the 739-page document is any mention of a guaranteed basic income, which Liberals voted to include in their policy book at their convention earlier this month amid Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s stated hesitation on the issue.
“I think it’s the end of the conversation for a CERB (Canada Emergency Response Benefit) that would be permanent, the $2,000 per month for every Canadian,” Tellier said.
“I don’t see any signs in this budget that they want to think about it.”
The budget also allots $5.7 billion over five years to helping post-secondary students, more than half of which will go to doubling federal student grants, on top of cash set aside to waive interest on federal student loans for an extra year until March 2023.
The pandemic has been particularly rough on students, with about 50 per cent unemployed in July and August, according to Statistics Canada.
The budget measures mark an attempt to help hard-hit workers and students, but also to keep them from crossing over to the more spend happy NDP in a possible federal election this year.
Other measures include bumping the federal minimum wage to $15, pledging $300 million to programs for Black and women entrepreneurs and other underrepresented groups, and recommitting to protect gig workers through promised amendments to the Canada Labour Code.
About 300,000 Canadians who had a job before the pandemic are still out of work, Freeland said.
“More Canadians may lose their jobs in this month’s lockdowns,” she said. “That is a lot of human tragedies.”