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When winter comes, will we be grasshoppers or ants?

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In Aesop’s fable about the grasshopper and the ant, the grasshopper foolishly wastes away the days of summer on fun and games while the ant works diligently to prepare for the harsh winter that he knows is coming.  The fable praises the virtues of hard work and planning for the future.

In communities all across the Atlantic region, it’s not hard to see that our people are getting older.  With smaller families, out-migration of our youth, and low levels of immigration we have seen a dramatic shift from the days when Atlantic Canada had the “youngest” populations in the country, to now having the oldest.  In some areas, we even see outright decline.  This is a trend that Statistics Canada projects will continue for much of the region over the next 20 years.  And while the aging population has been talked about it in policy circles for decades, beyond modest immigration strategies, we’ve yet to see our provincial governments respond effectively to prepare for that future.

It is a gap that CFIB notes in a recent report entitled Winter is coming: Why the aging population should scare governments (and the people who pay for them).

Atlantic Canada has high taxes and high levels of government spending.  This is not a new reality brought about by the aging population but rather a long-term trend that has led the region down a path of perilous public debt and many years of struggling to balance budgets and grow the economy.

With baby boomers exiting the workforce, the situation is becoming more serious.  The costs associated with aging from health care demands, long-term care needs, and other support programs will stretch and strain government resources.  At the same time, government will struggle to maintain its current levels of revenue growth with fewer workers and tax payers.

The federal Office the Parliamentary Budget Office released its Fiscal Sustainability Report for 2017 last month and there is some downright scary stuff in there for Newfoundland and Labrador, but the picture isn’t much rosier for the other Atlantic Provinces. The fiscal policy for three of the four Atlantic Provinces is described as “unsustainable” with only Nova Scotia squeaking by with a sustainable assessment that is “sensitive to alternative demographic and health spending assumptions”. In other words, don’t bet your farm on it.

While governments have made progress promoting immigration to our region, it’s not a magic bullet.  Longer-term planning is a must.  That means making sure governments understand the demands over the longer term not just the election cycle.  It also means making sure that they are doing everything in their power to make the most effective use of precious tax dollars.  This may mean doing less of some things, prioritizing key programs, and even working together as a region to find joint efficiencies and economies of scale.  Everything should be on the table.

 

Winter is coming and if there’s one thing that Atlantic Canadians know it is that winters can be harsh.  It is time for us to decide if when winter comes we want to be ants or if we are content to be grasshoppers left to beg in order to survive.