Big budget surplus a good time to bridge the gender gap

February 16, 2006

Budgets are normally presented as though they affect most people in the same way. They don’t. In recognition of this fact, “gender budgeting” has become fairly widespread throughout the world in recent years. The point of these budgets is to examine how different measures affect women and men in distinct ways.

This year, examining the BC government’s budget with women in mind is particularly appropriate. Because women make up the majority of public sector workers, have lower income than men, and rely on government services, they were especially harmed by the spending and job cuts between 2002 and 2004. And this year the government has money to spend –– with a large surplus, there is no excuse not to treat women decently.

Next Tuesday, Finance Minister Carole Taylor will unveil the provincial government’s first budget since its re-election. The government has lots more money to work with than it is officially acknowledging. In BC, as happens federally, it has become routine to systematically underestimate revenues so that at the end of the year the government can look good. In fact, the past four BC Budgets understated the province’s budget position by a combined $7.9 billion.

This low-balling continues. The September 2005 budget update projected surpluses of just over $1 billion for each of the next two fiscal years. We estimate, however, based on the Ministry of Finance’s own forecasts for economic growth, that surpluses will realistically be $2.8 billion in 2006/07 and $3.9 billion in 2007/08. This means people who have been short-changed by previous budgeting games can actually be helped this time around, if the real surpluses are acknowledged.

Today, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives releases its annual BC Solutions Budget (our alternative provincial budget), which we call A Budget for Women’s Equality. We believe that this year BC has a precious opportunity to enhance the well-being of those who bore the brunt of spending cuts under the government’s first mandate. Most of the things we propose are fairly easy to do and many involve only small expenditures.

The following are some of the things BC could accomplish if the government was honest about the size of the surplus over the coming three years, and committed to re-invest this money:

Restore programs: With fairly minimal amounts of money, vital programs could be easily restored. BC should re-establish the BC Human Rights Commission and the Ministry of Women’s Equality. Funding could be restored for women’s centres, legal aid, victims’ assistance and sexual assault programs. The government should also reinstate employment standards that were lost to women, and create a new arm’s length Women’s Advocate to monitor the impact of provincial policies on women.

Children: BC can afford to fully implement a publicly-funded, non-profit early learning and child care program. This would cost $1.5 billion in new operating funding by 2008/09, plus capital expenditures for new spaces. The crisis in the Ministry of Children and Families could also be greatly alleviated with a 30% increase in that ministry’s budget. Among other things, this would allow for the re-establishment of an independent Child and Youth Advocate’s office.

Poor Women and Men: Low-income people were particularly hard-hit by government cuts. The budget for social assistance was cut by 30%, 36 welfare offices were closed, and welfare benefits of many –– including single parents (mostly women) –– were cut. It is time not only to restore lost aid, but to raise welfare rates. Benefit rates have not been raised in over 12 years, and over that time inflation has eaten away at what were already paltry incomes. There is enough in the surplus to increase income assistance benefits by 50% by 2008/09, eliminate harmful new welfare eligibility rules, create 2,000 new units of social housing per year, and increase employment supports such as transportation allowances and access to training and education.

Equitable Training: BC is spending billions of dollars on public projects in preparation for the Olympics. The shortage of trades people is a serious problem and one area where women could be a solution. The government cut women’s access to successful equity skills training programs. These should be reinstated to ensure a long-term permanent solution.

All of this could be done, and surplus money would still be available to:

  • Invest an extra $500 million a year for three years in K-12 and post-secondary education;
  • Allocate $120 million per year to a pine beetle re-forestation and silviculture action plan; and
  • Increase health spending by 5% a year in order to fund progressive reforms, wait list reduction strategies, and more long-term care spaces.

Focusing on women does not mean that only women benefit. Finding solutions to women’s problems will also benefit men, families, communities, and society at large.

These policy choices would make a dramatic difference to the lives of British Columbians, and the money is there.

Seth Klein is the BC Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Marjorie Griffin Cohen is a professor of political science and Chair of Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University, and a CCPA board member.