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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, speaks during a news conference for a housing announcement, with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Chrystia Freeland and Minister of Emergency Preparedness and Minister responsible for the Pacific Economic Development Agency of Canada, Harjit S. Sajjan in Vancouver, on March 27.ETHAN CAIRNS/The Canadian Press

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said next month’s federal budget will be about “fairness,” with a focus on “young people trying to get their lives started.” He said the biggest issue young Canadians are facing “is being able to afford a place to live.”

And then he and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland pulled out some stylish window dressing for that home you can’t afford: A “Canadian Renters’ Bill of Rights” (even though this is provincial jurisdiction, and provincial shelves already groan with existing landlord-tenant legislation); a “Tenant Protection Fund” ($15-million for tenant rights’ groups); and “making sure renters get credit for on-time rent payments” (which appears to involve urging credit bureaus to consider rental history when compiling their opaque and proprietary credit scores).

What would an actual program of fairness and affordability for young Canadians look like?

The Trudeau government is already doing some of it. But the government has also spent years undermining affordability for the young, through misguided moves in both the labour market and the housing market.

Let’s start with where the Liberals have done right by young Canadians.

The government’s best policy, for which its gets remarkably little acknowledgment or credit, was the creation of the Canada Child Benefit.

This simplification and expansion of existing programs is something the Liberals promised in the 2015 election. Families with kids under 6 years of age get up to $7,437 a year per child, and $6,275 for kids aged 6 to 17. The amounts decline as family income rises. The CCB has worked so well that the Biden administration persuaded the U.S. Congress to copy it in 2022, though Republicans killed it after a year.

The CCB has lowered child poverty, and that’s an investment that will pay dividends. Fewer kids growing up in deprivation today spells more adults tomorrow with better health and better life prospects.

Also to the Liberal government’s credit: The Canadian Dental Care Plan. Created thanks to pressure from the New Democratic Party, it is gradually being rolled out to seniors, and by 2025 will cover anyone whose family income is less than $90,000 and does not have workplace dental insurance.

It will be a helpful affordability measure, and an even more important health measure, for people in their 20s and 30s who are at the bottom of the job ladder and the salary scale. They may be saving a few hundred bucks by skipping visits to the dentist today, but that’s likely to burden them with higher health costs, and worse health, later in life.

If the government can do something similar with pharmacare, it will similarly benefit young adults, who often have minimal or no workplace drug insurance.

Now, let’s talk about where the Liberals missed the mark on the affordability-for-young-people agenda.

Affordability is about how much money you make, and how much you have to spend to live.

The first part often comes down to how much negotiating power a young Canadian has. A tight labour market, with few job vacancies and ultralow unemployment, is a boon for people on the lowest rungs of the employment ladder. It tends to improve their job prospects, and their wages.

It may also boost productivity, by nudging businesses to try to keep their wage bill down through more investment in labour-saving technology.

In contrast, the massive increase in temporary foreign workers and visa-student workers that Canada has seen in the past few years is a program to increase “affordability” for business – by sharply boosting the low-wage labour supply, thereby pushing down wages in those jobs.

A government that wanted to boost affordability for young Canadians, and lower inequality, would have done the opposite. It would have made it easier for high-skills immigrants to come to Canada, thereby putting a bit of downward pressure on high-wage jobs. It would not have enabled a big surge in temporary foreign workers for low-wage, entry-level jobs.

That surge in arriving workers has also put pressure on the housing market, particularly for rentals. The 2021 census says that a third of Canada’s households are renters. In the city of Toronto, the figure is 48 per cent. In Vancouver, it’s 55 per cent. Montreal: 64 per cent.

And renters are disproportionately younger Canadians.

The policy window dressing the Liberals laid out this week doesn’t address the fundamental mismatch between rental housing supply, which will take years to significantly increase, and rental housing demand, which has spiked, largely because of government policy.

That spike in demand has led to a record low vacancy rate, which equals record high rents. No Canadian renters’ bill of rights can change that equation.

Imagine if the next election featured a Fairness and Affordability for Young Canadians Party. What would its platform look like?

One of its key economic goals would be raising market wages, from the bottom up. Another would be lowering the cost of renting – and not through counterproductive attempts to order landlords to charge less, but by using both supply and demand levers to steadily push down market prices.

I’d vote for that. I bet a lot of young Canadians would too.

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