After 25 years of social policy research, the Caledon Institute of Social Policy is winding down. On November 27, 2017 the Maytree Foundation hosted a celebration of the impact Caledon has had on social policy in the past quarter century. While I was unable to attend the celebration, I sent a tribute to acknowledge the important social policy role that Caledon has played.
I first became acquainted with Caledon in 1995 through Ken Battle’s work with an intergovernmental committee ─ I was the Alberta representative ─ that designed and implemented the National Child Benefit. This was a difficult time as Ottawa had just cut its social transfers to the provinces. Caledon helped us find ways to come together to make federal and provincial child benefits work better to reduce child poverty and lower the welfare wall.
Caledon’s strength has been as both an ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ expert on income support and social services issues, including unemployment insurance, social assistance, pensions, child benefits, tax credits, early childhood education, child care, caregiving, employment services, minimum wage, disability supports and housing. Their ‘niche’ experience in these very important areas was unique and deep. Their analysis of federal (and provincial) policy changes was always insightful, readable, practical and reliable. Caledon’s work became even more critical after 2008 when they stepped forward to fill the holes caused by the abandonment by our governments of even basic data collection on social assistance caseloads and incomes.
As someone who has studied in the United Kingdom and the European Union, I am amazed at the paucity of investment by our governments in data collection, dissemination, comparative research, reflection and dialogue on welfare state issues. While coordinating these tasks is certainly challenging in Canada’s decentralized federation ─ where provinces play the primary role ─ we seem to manage it with respect to health care. With Caledon leaving the scene, now is the time for our governments to collectively step up and invest in new institutions to improve citizen understanding of our other valued but beleaguered social programs.
Developing effective research, analysis, reflection and policy learning institutions in our decentralized federation is not an easy task where getting provinces and territories to cooperate with the federal government and each other is like herding cats. It took over 8 years for them to agree on the parameters of a new Labour Market Information Council and stakeholder advisory committee. I looked back at the life and death of some of our social policy institutions in a blog posting on this site last summer.
Without neutral data collection, research, analysis and reflection institutions (like the Canadian Institute for Health Information or CIHI that covers health care) we get very little information from our governments on many of our most important public policies. And what we do get is not particularly useful as provinces don’t want to be compared, and certainly not by the Government of Canada. This inability to compare significantly diminishes policy learning, supposedly the key strength of federalism.
I discovered this to be the case with respect to the public employment service, the focus of a book I have written that will be published next year. While the annual EI Monitoring and Assessment Report contains almost 20 years of comparable provincial results under the Labour Market Development Agreements (LMDAs), no analysis of the data has been undertaken over time to identify the best-performing provinces and assess why. In order to find provincial results under the Labour Market Agreements (LMAs) ─ in place between 2008/09 and 2013/14 ─ I had to locate each provincial report on line and in some cases even contact provincial officials. Except for one year, the national reports promised by Ottawa never materialized.
The Caledon Institute is to be commended for publishing a paper I wrote with Brigid Hayes in June 2016 on the positive results from LMA programming before the agreements were cancelled and replaced in 2015 by the Canada Job Fund Agreements. In my book I compare provincial performance under the LMDAs and LMAs.
But the situation was even worse on social assistance matters until Caledon stepped up to the plate. Since the demise of the Canada Assistance Plan in 1996 we have had only spotty caseload information provided by provincial/territorial governments over time. The loss of the National Council on Welfare in 2012 meant we also stopped getting information on the value of welfare incomes.
I think that it is a disgrace that a developed country like Canada has had to rely on a philanthropic organization to supply credible cross-Canada information on social assistance, one of our foundational social programs. Without pan-Canadian reports and reflection, we leave each province to cope on its own with rising caseloads and costs. There is limited policy learning. Millions of our poorest Canadians are virtually ignored. In my view, the provision of pan-Canadian data, research and analysis is a core responsibility of our governments: either federal, federal/provincial/territorial, or provincial/territorial.
So where will the Trudeau Liberals go next on this issue of social policy research? They pledged in budget 2017 to spend $75 million a year to work with “willing provinces and other organizations” to “explore new approaches to skills development, collect information about the skills needed in the labour market, and share information about what types of programs are the best bets for future investments in skills development”. How would welfare issues fit into this objective? What about provinces that are not ‘willing’? I guess those of us who observe the landscape will just have to ‘stay-tuned’ as our governments decide on what they perceive as the best approach.