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Income Protection for Retirees Canada

Public Income Support Programs For Older Nonworkers

Two national programs help protect older Canadians from destitution in old age: (1) the Old Age Security program, which includes the Old Age Security pension (OAS), the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), and the Allowance (including the Allowance for the Survivor); and (2) the Canada Pension Plan (CPP). Canadian law allows the provinces to opt out of the CPP if they offer a similar pension plan. The province of Quebec has chosen this route and established the Quebec Pension Plan (QPP), which is very similar, but not identical, to the CPP.

The Old Age Security pension is a universal monthly benefit available to persons age sixty-five or older, regardless of employment history, who are either Canadian citizens or legal residents who have lived in Canada for at least ten years since turning eighteen. The full Old Age Security pension is paid to persons who have resided in Canada for at least forty years since turning eighteen; partial benefits are paid for shorter residency. Benefits, which are financed from general revenues, are paid monthly and, to protect purchasing power, adjusted quarterly based on increases in the Consumer Price Index. Pensioners with individual net income above a certain level must repay all or part of the OAS in what is known as a clawback.

The Guaranteed Income Supplement is an income-tested monthly benefit paid to recipients of the Old Age Security pension who have little other income—among whom, unmarried persons, especially women, predominate. The amount of the GIS depends on marital status as well as income; any money other than the Old Age Security pension is defined as income for the purpose of determining the GIS amount. GIS benefits decline as OAS benefits rise. The GIS is indexed quarterly to reflect increases in the Consumer Price Index. The government bears the whole cost of these benefits, which may be supplemented by income-tested benefits in the provinces. Over one-third of all Old Age Security pensioners receive full or partial GIS benefits, although this figure varies widely by province.

The Allowance may be paid to spouses, partners (including common-law and same-sex partners), and survivors. These benefits are based on need and limited to persons between the ages of sixty and sixty-four who have lived in Canada for at least ten years since turning eighteen. Benefits, which are indexed quarterly, are converted to an Old Age Security pension when a recipient turns sixty-five.

Older Canadians may also be eligible for provincial or territorial income supplements in addition to federal income security. Other benefits, such as tax relief, that assist low-income older persons are available as well.

The government-funded OAS, GIS, Allowances, and provincial and territorial supplements guarantee a minimum income for older Canadians that is not enough to lift all older persons above the poverty level. As is the case in the United States, poverty in old age is far more common among women and the unmarried, who are predominantly women. Nonetheless, as is also the case in the United States, without these programs the poverty rates would be substantially higher.

The Canada Pension Plan and the Quebec Pension Plan are earnings-related pension programs administered by the government, paying full retirement benefits at age sixty-five. Early reduced benefits may be paid starting at age sixty, and benefits are increased if receipt is delayed up to age seventy. Beneficiaries must have made at least one year of contributions to qualify for this pension. In the United States, eligibility for retired worker benefits under Social Security requires forty quarters, or ten years, of contributions. All workers in Canada, between the ages of eighteen and seventy, including the self-employed, must contribute to the Canada Pension Plan or the Quebec Pension Plan. As with the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) program in the United States, contributions are paid only on earnings up to an annually adjusted maximum and not on investment or other sources of income. Unlike the United States, earnings below a minimum, set at C$3,500, are not subject to pension taxation in Canada. Benefits are indexed only at the beginning of the year.

In 2001, Canadian workers and their employers in both the CPP and QPP each paid 4.3 percent of the worker's earnings up to the maximum of C$38,300, which is indexed to average wage growth. The exempt first C$3,500 of earnings is not indexed. Self-employed workers contribute the employer's and the employee's share. The employer-employee contribution rate will rise to 4.95 percent of wages by 2003, where it is scheduled to remain.

Legislation enacted in 1998 introduced changes that move the Canada Pension Plan from pay-as-you-go financing, where contributions in any one year are largely paid out in benefits that year, to a system with greater funding. Designed to help pay future pension benefits in an aging Canada, the reserves are to be invested in a diversified portfolio of securities, rather than solely in provincial bonds, which was the practice until recently. In the United States, substantial reserves that will help pay for the baby boomers' retirement have been building in the Social Security Trust Funds, and proposals have been made to invest a portion of these reserves in equities.

The formula used to calculate benefits at the time of retirement in Canada adjusts previous earnings to make them comparable to average national earnings at the time a worker retires. The adjustment is based on the maximum pensionable earnings for the previous five years. Up to 15 percent of low-income years may be deducted from the pension calculation, as well as years when someone was caring for a child under the age of seven. In the United States, benefits are based on thirty-five years of earnings; only the five years of lowest earnings (out of forty) are deducted from the benefit calculation. For many women, these are years of zero earnings spent caring for young children. The resultant pensions in Canada, which are gender-neutral, are designed to replace about 25 percent of average earnings.

Spousal benefits are not paid under the Canada Pension Plan or the Quebec Pension Plan. However, survivors' benefits are payable to legally married and common-law survivors. These benefits amount to 60 percent of the spouse's retirement pension, up to a maximum, and are reduced for retirement below the age of sixty-five. In the United States, the spousal benefit, which amounts to a maximum of 50 percent of a Social Security beneficiary's retired worker benefit, remains an important feature of the Social Security program. Upon widowhood, survivors—99 percent of whom are women—become eligible for 100 percent of the decedent's Social Security benefit.

The Canada Pension Plan provides credit splitting upon divorce or separation. Based on the premise that marriage or a common-law relationship is an economic partnership, credit splitting acknowledges that both partners are entitled to share the pension credits earned by either partner during their marriage or cohabitation. Upon divorce or separation, pension credits earned during cohabitation are combined and divided equally between the partners, even if one spouse never contributed to the CPP. Such splitting generally works to the advantage of the lower earner in a partnership, typically the wife, and produces a higher retirement benefit than otherwise would have been received. Pension sharing, or assignment, enables spouses who are retired to split their combined CPP benefits equally if one of the spouses requests this.

Credit splitting and pension sharing remain rare in pension systems around the world. In the United States, a divorced spouse who has been married for at least ten years is also eligible for spousal benefit of up to 50 percent of the other spouse's retired worker benefit. A surviving spouse—whether a widow or divorcée who had been married ten or more years—will collect 100 percent of the former spouse's benefit if that is higher than her own benefit. Common law partners may also be eligible for spousal and survivor benefits in states that recognize these marriages. Earnings sharing, as it is called in the United States, has been proposed for Social Security; under these proposals, spouses would split equally the contributions, even zero contributions, made to Social Security during the years that they were married. Although extensively studied in the 1980s, earnings sharing has not advanced legislatively in the United States.

Canadian workers may be eligible for disability benefits if they have worked and contributed to the Canada Pension Plan or Quebec Pension Plan for a specified period. To qualify for disability benefits, a worker must have "severe and prolonged incapacity [physical or mental] for any gainful activity" (U.S. Social Security Administration, 1999, p. 65). Benefits consist of a basic flat-rate payment and a payment based on earnings. At age sixty-five, disability benefits are converted to a retirement pension. Access to health insurance is an important component of financial wellbeing in old age, and virtually all Canadians are eligible for publicly funded health care in Canada. In the United States, the Social Security Disability Insurance program helps workers who are unable to "engage in substantial gainful activity due to impairment expected to last at least one year or result in death" (U.S. Social Security Administration, 1999, p. 372). The programs of both countries require a recency of work test to qualify for disability benefits.

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