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Liberals fall short with first gender-based federal budget

Canada's first gender-based budget is like a friend who oozes sympathy over coffee but can't find cash when the check comes: It falls short, but means well.

This was to be a first-of-its-kind budget, and to be fair, women are all over it. Countries around the world have been doing gender-based budgeting for years, so Canada is just catching up. The best examples contain real analysis and rankings to show how spending programs serve men and women of different ages and income levels – something, incidentally, that government departments in Canada were supposed to have been doing for more than a decade. There's not much "analysis," and no benchmark rankings in this first effort. The Liberals have added a "Gender Statement Chapter," which often reads like budget-splaining a story already known with statistics anyone could find: Canadian women are highly educated, overrepresented in low-paying, part-time jobs, struggling with pricey daycare and burdened by unpaid caregiving.

So, what's to be done? When it comes to putting your money where your feminist leanings lie, the Liberals introduced some programs clearly geared to women. They've put more money into affordable housing and the family justice system, and expanded eligibility for Canadian student loans to part-time students and those with children. They have committed $100-million over the next five years to create a national strategy for gender-based violence and will install a special adviser on LGBTQ2 issues in the Privy Council Office. There's an additional $310-million over six years for a consolidated caregiving credit, enabling caregivers to get about $1,000 back on their taxes. There's $13-million to improve Internet access to low-income families and more money for skills training for Canadians who haven't qualified before because they didn't work enough hours.

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But it's in their flagship programs – parental and caregiving leave, and child-care spending – that they flounder. The Liberals are keeping a campaign promise to allow more flexibility in maternity and parental leave; women will be able to take leave 12 weeks before giving birth, stretch one year of employment insurance benefits over 18 months, or work sporadically. The government is also adding a new caregiver leave, which allows people to take employment insurance for 15 weeks to care for a critically ill relative.

But that's only for the lucky Canadians who can afford it. Those programs will charm upper-middle-class women who can get by on EI and are significantly more likely to have their wages topped up by an employer. But a study published last year by researchers at Brock University and the University of Montreal found that outside of Quebec, 38 per cent of mothers are excluded from parental leave as they don't make enough or haven't worked long enough to qualify for EI. (In Quebec, where the government tops up benefits and has expanded eligibility, it's a different story: 85 per cent of mothers earning less than $30,000 a year take provincially funded leave.) Unlike under the federal proposal, new dads in Quebec also get their own use-it-or-lose-it time at home – a policy that research suggests helps to gender-balance both caregiving and workplace expectations on parents.

There's an economic argument for gender-based budget analysis: Done properly, it should increase the labour-force participation of half the population. In Canada, women's employment has stalled at about 81 per cent for a decade, and, as the budget itself notes, the country continues to have one of the highest gender wage gaps in the OECD. That's where affordable, accessible, high-quality child care comes in, creating an environment that enables women to work while raising a family. (And however often the government tweaks these programs, low-income mothers can hardly take advantage of job training or university loans if they can't find or afford child care.)

This Liberal budget isn't going to make that happen in Canada anytime soon. Ottawa is promising $7-billion in child care but only spending about $500-million a year during the government's current mandate. The budget suggests this funding "could" create 40,000 subsidized spaces over the next three years, depending on how the provinces spend it. For a frame of reference, consider that Quebec's $20-a-day child-care plan costs more than $2.4-billion. There are currently about 500,000 regulated centre-based spots in the entire country – enough for only one in four children under the age of five. The country needs a lot more than 40,000 might-happen spaces.

Give the Liberals kudos for referring to women on nearly every page of the budget, for showing that the federal government knows its own statistics. But Canadian families – especially low-income mothers striving to join the middle class – already know where they're crunched and what might help. They should expect Canada's first feminist government to pick up a gender-balanced share of the check where it will help most and provide the analysis to back it up. There's always next year.

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Globe political columnist gives his take on the new Liberal budget, describing it as a plan mired in debt that will hinder the Trudeau government's agenda.
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