Posts tagged ‘Government’

October 8, 2009

The Ontario HST: a counter-intuitive remedy?

The Ontario-based 25-in-5 Network for Poverty Reduction met in the basement of a community agency this week to hear some radical news. U of T’s Ernie Lightman and Andy Mitchell were at the front of the room. Economist Hugh Mackenzie had joined them. Policy wonk John Stapleton came in soon afterwards. Various funders, networks and advocacy groups sat around the room. Now Magazine’s Alice Klein sat at the side.

Lightman explained that this was a preliminary discussion rather than an off-the-record one.

We were there to discuss the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST). Despite the hue and cry against it, Mitchell and Lightman’s analysis was showing that it is a progressive tax.

When the HST was announced, Lightman, habituated by a long history watching the Department of Finance and Treasury Board, was an early critic. Soon after he was interviewed one morning on CBC radio, Finance Minister Dwight Duncan followed with his own rebuttal: university professors shouldn’t speak about things they didn’t know about, Duncan said.

Lightman, to his credit, took up Duncan’s challenge. He and Mitchell, a stats master, met with Treasury Board staff, gathered some data and began the number-crunching. The preliminary results have induced them to rethink their original position and to broaden the discussion to this audience.

Mitchell’s analysis looked at the announced changes to the HST, personal income tax and Ontario Tax Credits and their combined effect on economic families (which includes singles too). The calculations did not include the transitional “bribe”. Here’s what they found:

  • While the overall effect on families is a wash, the HST’s impact is progressive. On average, low income families will benefit from the changes; middle income earners will come out neutral; and, high earners, over $100,000, will see an increase in their total tax burden.
  • Single parents should, on average, do better under the HST, whatever income bracket they are.
  • Couples with children should also do better with the HST. (Families with children will likely do even better than projected because of point-of-sale exemptions on items such as books and children’s clothing.
  • Singles who earn under $50,000 – $60,000 should benefit from the changes.
  • Only seniors showed a more mixed result, probably because of a range of reasons.

Now, Mitchell and Lightman cautioned this was a projection using SPSM Stats Can data. It does not account for any changes in spending habits which may occur after the changes are brought in. So, for instance, if a consumer decides to a get a haircut less frequently because of the higher costs, then these numbers may shift.

As the gathered group began to thresh through what this meant, a few obvious advocacy positions emerged.

  1. If low income people are to face higher day-to-day costs through the HST, the tax credits will have to be paid more frequently throughout the year so that, as Voices from the Street Mike Creek, reminded us, they didn’t run out of money even earlier in the month. Small, regular payments are better than a few large lump sums paid months apart.
  2. Because more tax credits and income benefits will now be flowing through the tax system, community-based tax clinics will continue to be a vital means of ensuring low-income people are filing returns so that they can benefit from the credits they deserve. Community agencies will need additional resources to improve the take-up.
  3. As the changes are currently structured, young income-earners are more likely to come out better. The impact of these changes on seniors, particularly low-income ones, should be looked at more carefully to ensure they are not left behind.
  4. Ontario tax credits are now fully indexed and so are protected from inflationary erosion. They are however always be vulnerable to a government’s whim to move to partial or zero indexing. Full indexation is vital.

Hugh Mackenzie had the final part of the discussion, framing the importance of taxes because they boost “the robust fiscal capacity of government which allows government to drive services.” And, if services are boosted, as his work with Richard Shillington last spring in A Quiet Bargain showed, the poor were more likely to receive an equitable share. When it’s implemented, this “tax-grabbing” change introduced by the Ontario Liberal government may just raise enough millions and billions to do that.

The HST sounds like a good deal to anti-poverty activists, after all.

read more »

%d bloggers like this: