National Post

CRB spending nearly doubles: watchdog

- Jesse snyder

OTTAWA • The federal government has blown past initial cost estimates for a key COVID-19 support program, prompting more warnings that Ottawa should modify some of its pandemic benefits as a way to trim spending.

The Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) — which pays unemployed Canadians $2,000 a month — was initially estimated by Finance Department officials to cost $6.3 billion by the end of March. But it has now almost doubled to $11.1 billion as of Feb. 28, according to data posted by the government.

“I would say this speaks to the generosity of some of the federal government’s income replacemen­t programs,” Parliament­ary Budget Officer Yves Giroux said in an interview.

Higher-than-expected costs come after months of warnings from economists and the Parliament­ary Budget Office, among others, who said Ottawa should have already been scaling down its benefits programs or perhaps target specific sectors in order to ensure public dollars are spent efficientl­y. Pandemic relief spending under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has outpaced that of other developed nations, which has been partly attributed to the wide scope of Ottawa’s biggest aid programs.

The CRB, which replaced the widely-used Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), acts as a financial cushion for people who lost their jobs during the pandemic. Ottawa spent a total of $74 billion on the CERB, which has since been wound down.

Applicants to the CRB were previously eligible for 26 weeks of coverage, but Ottawa in February extended eligibilit­y to 38 weeks in total. The program is currently scheduled to end at the end of September 2021.

The Liberals last year signalled an intention to lower the CRB to $1,600 per month, amid concerns that it could act as a disincenti­ve for people to return to work. Those plans were later scrapped after the NDP pressured the government to maintain payments at $2,000, where they remain.

Economists and other experts have been generally supportive of benefits like the CRB and CERB, particular­ly after a second round of lockdowns was imposed in

Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and elsewhere in late December, causing a spike in layoffs. Canada’s current unemployme­nt rate sits at 9.4 per cent.

But experts nonetheles­s say that programs like CRB need to be scaled down or possibly narrowed to hardhit sectors like food services, hotels or tourism. Continued extensions risk creating an atmosphere in which government support programs become unsustaina­ble.

“The more you extend these benefits, the higher expectatio­ns are that you will make them permanent, or to enrich other benefits that we had PRE-COVID,” Giroux said.

According to a PBO report published Wednesday, which reviewed the government’s main spending estimates for the next fiscal year, total federal spending in 2021-22 is so far expected to be $342 billion, with $22 billion related to COVID-19. Those estimates don’t include a range of additional spending measures expected in the 2021 budget, which will be tabled in the second half of April. Finance officials have said they would spend up to $100 billion over three years in stimulus funding that they have yet to specify.

Temporary COVID-19 spending measures are being extended at the same time that permanent transfer programs continue to place additional burden on the public purse.

Government estimates suggest elderly benefits costs will be $62 billion in 2021-22 — or roughly one out of every five public dollars spent — reflecting Canada’s quickly aging population. A January 2020 report by economists at RBC estimated that elderly benefits costs in Canada would reach $99 billion by 2030, doubling in cost in a single decade.

That will in turn put more pressure on provincial health systems, and has prompted calls from provincial and territoria­l leaders for Ottawa to boost the Canada Health Transfer.

Even so, the PBO has said the federal government continues to enjoy plenty of fiscal room as interest rates remain low. In its report Wednesday, the parliament­ary watchdog estimated debt costs in 2021-22 to come in at $21 billion, or $2.8-billion lower than pre-pandemic borrowing costs.

Still, Giroux said, longterm debt obligation­s remain far more uncertain.

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