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Stimulus falls short for many women

OTTAWA

Some Canadian women may be measuring for a new kitchen today now that Ottawa's chipping in for the cupboards with a tax break.

But Masu Khan is worrying about how to fill the cupboards she has, and no home-renovation credit will help. She's staring down rent increases she can't afford, hoping her 12-year-old sedan keeps running so she can drive each Saturday to a grocery store with cheaper prices than the ones in her neighbourhood, and avoid the food bank.

The single mother has cut all the corners she can since arriving in Canada from Pakistan in 2006, with her son, now 5. The $24,000 a year she earns working at a Hamilton daycare vanishes into bills. She'd rather save for Issam's RESP than get her painful tooth cavity filled by the dentist. Now she's looking for weekend work – nights, she hopes – so she still can spend afternoons with her son.

“It's going to be hard,” she said. “Even now, I delay his bedtime so I can spend an extra hour with him.”

There's a bit of extra money for Ms. Khan, 37, in the budget – roughly $50 a month in tax cuts and benefits – but she'd have better luck finding a job if she swung a hammer, rather than cradled babies, for a living.

Billions will go to repairing bridges and twinning highways, and hockey moms will be pleased to see money spent on rinks. But there's nothing to expand daycare, the main reason many women can't get into the work force, or get the full-time hours that will let them qualify for employment insurance when the economy stumbles.

“It's very much a ‘you're on your own' message,” said Armine Yalnizyan, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. “Stimulus or no stimulus, it's the same thing women have been told for more than a decade: ‘You want improvement, you go out and make it yourself, baby.'”

Women – particularly single mothers and seniors – are more heavily concentrated among poor Canadians: They pay less tax, if any, and work fewer hours for lower salaries, often while trying to squeeze their children into affordable daycare spots.

So the tax cuts may “look good” in the budget when it comes to low-income earners, but Kathleen Lahey, a law professor at Queen's University in Kingston, says the government is still giving bigger savings to richer families who need them less.

One example she gives: The higher age credit – touted as helping the “vulnerable” – can be claimed only by seniors making more than roughly $19,000 a year, a cutoff many older women won't reach.

Cuts to personal income tax – which help men disproportionately because they earn more – still account for less of the new deficit than corporate tax cuts, which also favour men. Dr. Lahey said giving poor families more money makes the best economic sense during a recession: They typically dump the money back into the local economy – Ms. Khan, for instance, says her extra dollars will go to food and clothing.

But with budgets, men and women don't rank the same. Raising women's incomes has been shown to boost GDP and improve conditions for families in general. But since nearly one in three women does not qualify for employment insurance, the government's decision to extend benefits by five weeks and freeze premiums won't help many female workers when the recession hits health-care and retail jobs.

And as Dr. Yalnizyan noted, the home-renovation credit may help a middle-class woman hire a designer to change her colours, but it's not available to the low-income mother who wants to buy an energy-efficient fridge to cut her electric bill. “If you are actually poor there is nothing you can do to help yourself out.”

For Cathy Moffatt, 29, the budget is frustrating; the goodies are for people who make either less or more than she does. The single mother from Maple Ridge, B.C., is trying to find work after being laid off from her job as an office administrator at a construction company in November.

With her old salary, she lived paycheque to paycheque, and a small raise slashed her tax credits. Even with the new budget, she wouldn't have seen much change. And now that she doesn't have to pay for daycare, her income is almost the same on employment insurance as it was when she worked.

Budgets, she believes, ignore women like her: single mothers without child support making modest incomes. “I'm in that middle ground of not making enough to cover everything, and making too much to get a little help,” she said.

“Working or not, I'll never have a savings account. I'll never have an RRSP.”

She's not expecting her situation to change any time soon.

“I'm hoping and praying for that $20 an hour job, but that's not out there right now.”

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