You may not have noticed, but Canada has a national election campaign on. Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been leading a minority government for five years and is looking for a majority after failing to get one in the last two elections. The Liberal Party under Michael Ignatieff has been running behind in the polls, though there’s some evidence that he may be closing the gap. Canada also has a strong social democratic third party, the New Democrats, and Quebec has a large nationalist party, the Bloc Quebecois. The election is on May 2.
One reason for the Liberals’ gains, according to the helpful Web site on Canadian politics, threehundredeight.com — yes, it does remind you of Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com — is that they have been “coming out with big proposals that capture attention.” This week, Ignatieff was pushing an idea he calls “learning passports.” Under the plan, the government would put $1,000 a year into high school students’ education savings accounts. For lower-income students, the figure would be $1,500 a year.
There are a lot of good things about this, not the least being that students get the money before they go to college and therefore don’t have to wonder whether they’ll get student loans or scholarships. Knowing the money is there and growing while they are in high school is a nice incentive for students to work hard to have a chance at college. And this approach has advantages over tax credits. As Kevin Milligan, a Canadian economist pointed out in the Globe and Mail, “The money is provided up front, rather than when taxes are filed next year or in the future. Students earn much more during their lifetimes than those without post-secondary education, but they are cash crunched. Giving them money up front instead of later on therefore may be useful.” I’d love to see American politicians and policy analysts try to adapt the Canadian Liberals’ idea to our circumstances.
I call attention to this partly because it was a relief to see a politician looking for a creative way to use government to expand opportunities. Washington politics right now is all about cuts, cuts and more cuts. The reductions are always justified in the name of “our children” and the debt they will inherit. But “our children” would also like a shot at college and a better life. Disempowering government from giving them a hand is not doing the next generation any favors.