Canadian Budget 2017: A Gender-Based Approach to Economics

Note: This article was originally published on the NATO Association of Canada's website.

The Canadian Government recently tabled its budget for 2017. Among the highlights is an unprecedented focus on gender-based analysis meant to address pressing issues like violence against women and the infamous, but widely misunderstood, gender pay-gap.

The largest cause of the gender pay-gap is that women on average work fewer paid hours annually than men. The emphasis here is on paid work, because on average women work 1.5 unpaid hours per day more than men. Traditional gender roles and norms continue to evolve with generational shifts, but they nonetheless linger enough to prevent wage parity. As the video from Vox showed, women still tend to perform the bulk of household labour, including child care, while men tend to be the primary breadwinner in a heterosexual, two-parent family.

Melissa Moyser from Statistics Canada points out that “the gender employment gap is greater in census metropolitan areas with high day-care fees.” Looking after children requires either paying someone else, or limiting the number of paid hours that a parent can work outside the home. Choosing the latter option might also hinder a person’s career progression, and thus preclude a higher salary, because working fewer hours over several years will mean less experience gained in one’s profession. These factors only become more severe for single parents, who must often raise children without a partner’s income.

The 2017 budget seeks to address some of these problems. In Chapter Two it pledges “an additional $7 billion over 10 years, starting in 2018–19, to support and create more high-quality, affordable child care spaces across the country,” and looks to subsidize as many as 40 000 new spaces over the next three years.

Chapter Five employs the gender-based approach, adducing statistical trends that compare Canadian men’s and women’s educational attainment, median wage incomes, and poverty levels. It introduces the new Canada Child Benefit (CCB) to aid low- and middle-income families with the costs of raising children, as well as a new Employment Insurance caregiving benefit aimed at helping caregivers balance work with family. Importantly, the budget quotes representatives from YWCA Toronto as mentioning that the CCB will also contribute to reducing domestic violence, since people are more likely to remain in abusive situations if they cannot afford to provide for themselves or their children on their own.

It is true that sexism also plays some role in wage discrimination. Certain employers may be reluctant to promote a young married woman, for instance, on the assumption – accurate or not – that the woman may soon become pregnant and take extended leave from work. The data presented in the Vox video suggests this, too, by demonstrating that gender pay disparity shrinks among older cohorts. Even then, among Standard & Poor 1500 companies there are fewer female CEOs than there are those named John or David.

The budget proposes some initiatives to alleviate these difficulties, but it still leaves much to be desired. Kate McInturff of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) notes that

Support for unpaid care work is delivered through a tax break – which many female caregivers will not qualify for, because they don’t have the time left to do enough paid work to raise their incomes to a level that would qualify them for that break. Further supports to caregivers and new parents are delivered through the Employment Insurance program, which many women don’t qualify for, because they tend to work part-time, because they do more unpaid caregiving work.

In other words, many people in need are going to fall through the cracks. Implementing a Universal Basic Income (UBI) instead would provide a more comprehensive solution. The idea behind a UBI is that all people are entitled to be free from poverty. Such a plan would benefit economic growth and stability by providing low-income individuals and families with needed disposable income, thereby alleviating household debt.

Some worry that handing out free money would cause high inflation as people spend their new income and bid up prices, but that would not occur as long as the government funds the program with tax revenue rather than by printing new money. Then comes the reluctance to raise taxes, of course, but that is a question of political preference, and the program could potentially be made revenue-neutral by using it to replace parts of the existing welfare state. A UBI would have to jump many political hurdles, but where there is a will, there is a way.

A UBI would also change the way we perceive and value different forms of work, notably that of the household economy. Providing a permanent income to stay-at-home parents would be a bold signal that our society recognizes the value in household labour and endorses the time that parents spend with their children, thereby engendering a sorely-needed feminist perspective on economics. Guaranteeing a minimum standard of income in this way would do much to diminish the gender pay-gap because it would accomplish at least as much as what the new benefits and child care spaces aim to do, but would not miss anyone accidentally.

Another weakness in the 2017 budget is that its gender-based analysis neglects the growing economic plight of men. Neil Macdonald writes that “the overwhelming majority of people who have lost their jobs in the resource sector . . . are men.” He cites Professor Janice MacKinnon, the former finance minister of Saskatchewan, who even believes that it is currently a disadvantage to be a white male entering the job market. That trend is set to worsen, moreover, since male-dominated industries like manufacturing and truck-driving will be some of those hit hardest by the coming automation tsunami. In fact, as I have elsewhere argued, the idea of UBI is gaining steam as a response to such a future.

The 2017 Federal Budget represents an important step in building a fairer society, but we still have a long way to go because fiscal expenditure only treats the symptoms of deep-seated problems. Legislation can impact tangible inequalities, but it cannot necessarily address the cultural reasons for why those imbalances came to be, or why they endure. Progressive budget initiatives are still useful for that grander mission insofar as they illuminate the cultural causes of disparity for our contemplation. At that point, feminism has the capacity to reshape gender roles and norms so that patterns of discrimination, abuse, and gender wage-disparity cannot reemerge. To quote one of Oscar Wilde’s best lines, “the proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that [injustice] will be impossible.”