Spending big money is responsible – when it protects our human rights
This Maytree opinion is part of our series, “A life with dignity: Towards economic and social rights for all.” Each month, we will explore how our collective choices are bringing us closer to – or keeping us from – what we need for every person in Canada to live with dignity.
When the federal budget dropped last week, predictably, much ink was spilled and many hands were wrung over the big numbers. How much will we spend? What will our debt be? When will we achieve a balanced budget? These are questions that need to be asked. But, in isolation, they miss the point.
Governments are tasked with spending public money. Their duty is to spend responsibly, which means that they must spend that money in service of the public good. Responsible spending means supporting the ability of each person in Canada to live a life with dignity.
A life with dignity requires, at minimum, that individuals and communities have an adequate standard of living. This is a fundamental human right. A key principle of a human rights-based approach is the use of maximum available resources. The government can achieve this in different ways. For example, they can distribute funds directly to individuals and families, such as through social assistance, or benefits for low-income workers or seniors. They can use funds for the public services that contribute to a decent standard of living, such as health care, education and training, and affordable housing. They can use funds for the structures and institutions that protect, enforce or otherwise support our human rights – tribunals such as the Landlord and Tenant Board and institutions such as National Housing Council, which provide accountability and remedy, also fundamental elements of a human rights-based approach.
Using maximum available resources can also mean using all the tools at the government’s disposal to influence or compel action from other actors, in order to create the conditions where people can live with dignity. This could mean, for example, using legislative or policy tools to ensure that employers provide decent working conditions for employees, or that housing developers are building permanently affordable housing into each new development.
In other words, the government’s duty is to address human rights at the individual, community and systemic level. And that takes resources.
So the numbers should be big, because it’s a big job, and it is the government’s duty to put everything it has behind it. And we also need to pay attention to how those numbers break down – how much goes to education and training, or to housing, or to paying for emergency paid sick leave? In this budget, we see a historic investment in child care, for example. Done right, child care will support people in critical ways and facilitate opportunities in the paid workforce; it will also strengthen the economy. How much will go to these types of longer-term, systemic supports for dignity tells us how committed the government is to fulfilling their duties.
To be sure, spending public money is not something to be taken lightly. Governments must account for and be held accountable for using public resources. Economists might point to the reasons why now is a good time to spend – ranging from low interest rates to the threat of prolonging the damage caused by the pandemic if we do not invest now in our recovery. In ordinary times, it might be more feasible to protect and support people while maintaining a balanced budget. In extraordinary times such as these, it is important to put the dignity of people first, even if the government has to shoulder the fiscal burden on our behalf.
When we look at government budgets, or at government spending on particular programs, our primary concern should not be about how much will be spent, but rather about how that spending will support a dignified life for each person and community it serves. Not, how much does it cost? But rather, what will we get for it?
In fact, as we continue to slog through the never-ending morass of this pandemic, perhaps the question we should ask is, is this the most we can do? Does this investment represent our maximum available resources? When we look at these numbers, how much is earmarked and how it is allocated – is it enough to protect our human rights and to support each other towards a dignified life?
Discussions about balance and debt are necessary, but alone, they do not tell us what we need to know. Responsible spending means more than putting numbers in the right place on a ledger. It means investing wisely in the dignity and well-being of each person and community in Canada. It is the government’s duty to spend – and spend big – to support our economic and social rights.