Distributing dental benefit through tax system means some needy families won’t access it: experts

Running the program through the Canada Revenue Agency is a problem because many low-income families are less likely to file tax returns, one economist says

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OTTAWA — Economic and public policy experts warn the proposed federal dental benefit may not reach the families most in need because the government has chosen to distribute it through the tax system.

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The federal government plans to send cheques of up to $650 to qualifying low- and medium-income households to help pay for children’s dental needs through the same platform used for Canada Child Benefit payments.

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That is run through the Canada Revenue Agency, which the experts suggest could be a problem because many low-income families are less likely to file tax returns.

That means they face barriers to accessing the Canada Child Benefit payments and could encounter similar roadblocks when it comes to getting the new dental benefit.

“Low-income people, homeless people, people on social assistance — all of these groups of people have really low tax filing rates and low take-ups of benefits that are already out there like the Canada Child Benefit,” said Gillian Petit, an economist and research associate at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy.

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“Pushing out the dental benefit using the same platform is going to run into a lot of the same issues.”

The same is true for those who do not speak English or French, she said, citing the onerous and daunting administrative work as a potential factor. She said this will likely also be the case for the proposed dental benefit.

The Canada Revenue Agency plans to use past tax returns to determine if families meet the income criteria and confirm that they have a child under the age of 12. After that, families will need to attest that they do not have private dental insurance and that they have out-of-pocket dental expenses. They will also have to provide their dentist’s contact information and the approximate date of their child’s appointment and keep their receipts in case they are audited.

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“It’s just a lot of paperwork and time,” Petit said.

Jennifer Robson, an associate professor and program director of political management at Carleton University, says about 10.5 per cent of adults with children under the age of 18 don’t file a tax return, and those families tend to be below the poverty line.

“Intuitively, those are an awful lot of people who are probably financially vulnerable and less likely to have access to dental insurance,” said Robson.

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, has previously spoken about how there are also many reasons Indigenous Peoples may not fill out their income tax returns, from principled stands against colonization and lack of trust in government to lower literacy stemming from poorly funded public services.

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She made the comments in June, when auditor general Karen Hogan found the government was not doing enough to make sure income-tested supports like the child benefit get to hard-to-reach populations like those living on reserves, despite spending tens of millions of dollars on outreach.

The dental benefit is a key element of the supply and confidence agreement struck between the Liberals and the NDP, which stipulates that the government has until the end of the year to offer dental care to children under the age of 12 with a household income under $90,000.

This newbenefit is therefore meant to be an interim measure while the federal government works on a more complete dental-care plan.

“This is what you get when you rush policy because you have an artificial deadline,” Robson said. “You cobble something together because a better delivery mechanism would take an awful lot more time to develop.”

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In a joint statement, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier said children shouldn’t have to wait to access the care that they need.

“The Canada Revenue Agency has the resources to quickly deliver this interim program due to its extensive infrastructure, long-standing experience in providing services to Canadians and outreach work within communities to help Canadians navigate the tax and benefit system,” they said in the written statement sent Tuesday.

The ministers urged potentially eligible parents to sign up for a CRA account and make sure they filed their 2021 tax returns.

Robson disagrees. She said the tax-collection agency is designed to do just that — collect taxes — and is not equipped to distribute social benefits.

“The government learned during the pandemic that CRA is pretty good at cutting cheques to a lot of people,” she said. “I don’t think that we have come to grips with what that comes along with.”

The Liberal government’s dental-care legislation is still awaiting a second-reading vote in the House of Commons, but is expected to pass with support from the NDP.

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