Stephen Harper: “On July 20 the biggest single benefit in Cdn history will be distributed to families across Cda.”
By: Dana Wagner on
Stephen Harper, Prime Minister and Conservative MP for Calgary Southwest, on Twitter on July 14, 2015
The UCCB money totalling $3 billion delivered in July is not the biggest individual payment, total payment, or even same-day payment in the history of Canadian benefits.FactsCan Score: False
Last month, cheques went out to Canadians with children up to 17 years old. The money is from the increased monthly payments under the Universal Child Care Benefit. Taken together, the cheques totalled just under $3 billion according to government estimates and cover the first seven months of the enhanced UCCB program that became effective on January 1, 2015.
The enhanced UCCB saw a new $60 each month for children ages six to 17, and an increase to $160 from $100 each month for children under six.
Promoting what his deputy Pierre Poilievre called “Christmas in July,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper wrote on Twitter, “On July 20 the biggest single benefit in Cdn history will be distributed to families across Cda.”
The superlative talking point got echoed. The Canadian Press reported the UCCB is “billed as the largest, one-time benefit payment in federal history.”
The UCCB involves big numbers, but big enough to be the mother of all benefit payments in Canadian history?
To check this claim out, we need to get the definitions straight because Harper’s Tweet leaves a lot to interpretation. What is meant by “biggest,” “single” and “benefit”?
Stanley Winer, who holds the Canada Research Chair in public policy at Carleton University, warned of “the serious incompleteness of any claim to bigness.” The “biggest” could mean the dollar amount. Or the biggest proportional amount. So if $3 billion goes to 4 million people, but $1 billion goes to a fraction of that, the smaller amount could be called the bigger benefit. And it’s unclear if biggest refers to the total of what everyone gets – $3 billion – or the individual amounts that each family received. So we’ll look at a few interpretations.
On to “single.” We’ll assume it refers the one sum that includes retroactive payments. Single could also mean single-day.
The definition of a “benefit” is general, but somewhat more straightforward. At its most basic, a benefit is a service or program delivered by the government. Service Canada keeps an index of benefits at a dedicated Canada Benefits website, and there are dozens listed across the departments, including all those referred to below.
Depending on the age of their children, parents received $420 ($60 for seven months) or $520 ($60 for seven months plus $100 for July) per child.
It’s easy to find an individual benefit that’s bigger than the highest per-child, taxable cheque amount of $520. Tax is a key word here. The UCCB is taxable, and tax experts have cautioned parents to expect a chunk of the benefit money to be returned at time tax.
One bigger benefit is Employment Insurance, partly considered a benefit for Families and Children, which gets paid weekly to a maximum of $524 per week and is also taxable. Another is the Canada Pension Plan Disability Benefit, a monthly taxable sum that averaged $842 in 2013, but can reach a monthly maximum of $1,213.
Estimated total bigness
The total spending on the UCCB for July 2015 is just under $3 billion. But another dimension of this payment is that the $3 billion reflects retroactive payments since January 2015. “It’s a bit of an accounting game to add together six months of retroactive payments” and call it the biggest, said Michael Wolfson, the Canada Research Chair in Population Health Modelling/Populomics (we didn’t make his title up).
Since just part of the UCCB money is retroactive, to compare it to another benefit, we need to add in the pre-existing UCCB payments from January to June 2015, for a new total of $4.4 billion in payments over seven months. That’s smaller than the last seven months of payments through the Canada Child Tax Benefit, of $6.2 billion.
Looking at this proportionately, the CCTB is still bigger. The UCCB benefits an estimated 3.8 million families, or $1,158 per family over seven months. There were approximately 2.7 million CCTB payments per month, or $2,296 per family over the same period.
Elsewhere in UCCB advertising, the claim to single-day bigness appeared. An Employment and Social Development Canada press release announced it’s “the largest single-day direct payment to families in history.”
But once a month, every month, payments from another benefit go directly to Canadians in similar quantity: the Canada Pension Plan. In March 2015, the most recent month with publicly available data, $3.2 billion from the CPP left government coffers.
Another is the Old Age Security pension. In March 2015, 5.5 million Canadians received an aggregate monthly payment of $2.95 billion. That’s just below the single-day UCCB payment of $2.99 billion. But it’s possible, even likely, that more money went out in July 2015 for the OAS pension for two reasons. First, the rates get adjusted four times per year for inflation. Payments in the July to September 2015 quarter get a 0.2 per cent rate increase. If the March 2015 amount held steady, July’s payments at the adjusted rate would be $3 billion. But it’s likely to be higher still, because there is a regular increase in recipients as the baby boomers retire, which also raises the aggregate benefit amount.
There’s another nuance to the OAS. It’s a program composed of the OAS pension, plus two other additions for low-income Canadians, the Guaranteed Income Supplement and Allowances. Frances Woolley, the associate dean of economics at Carleton University, said these pieces are sometimes considered separate programs, but technically they fall under a single OAS program. In March 2015, the payments under the OAS program totalled $3.8 billion – higher than the UCCB.
Again, the UCCB total is retroactive, so if seven months of CPP or OAS cheques were mailed at once, multiplying the roughly $3 billion monthly totals, these benefits would really outstrip the UCCB.
Getting really technical on the single-day claim, keep in mind none of these benefits are usually paid on exactly the same day because some people get direct deposit while others get cheques in the mail.
Finally, it’s possible that Harper meant to say this is the biggest single-day benefit for families. It’s been said that way elsewhere. Using this interpretation, only the claim to single-day bigness could work since CPP and OAS aren’t considered family benefits. However, Harper’s tweet as worded doesn’t fit this interpretation.
Verdict? By all measures, looking beyond family-specific benefits, the UCCB payments that Canadians received on or around July 20 do not qualify as the biggest.