The present blog post is the first in a two-part series on social assistance. The series is inspired by recent data captured in Alberta’s 2016 Point-in-Time Count of Homelessness suggesting that just a small percentage of persons experiencing homelessness in Calgary receive social assistance (see point #7 of this previous post).
Ron Kneebone (Professor of Economics at the University of Calgary) and Katherine White (Yukon’s Deputy Finance Minister) have referred to social assistance as “the final layer of the public social safety net — designed to catch those people in need of support but unable to find it from family, friends or non-government agencies…”
(I’d argue that, in larger urban centres, social assistance is in fact the second-last layer before the homeless-serving sector…)
Here are 10 things to know:
- Every Canadian province and territory has its own social assistance system—that is, its own legislation, its own regulations and its own policies. First Nations with self-government agreements have their own “income assistance” programs. And for First Nations without self-government agreements, income assistance is funded by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (but “aligned with the rates and eligibility criteria for off-reserve residents of the reference province or territory”). In the words of Martin Papillon (Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Ottawa): “First Nations administer income assistance on behalf of federal authorities, yet they follow rules and objectives established by provinces.”
- There aren’t enough jobs to go around, and it’s well-known that Employment Insurance benefits provide only temporary coverage (and only cover a small percentage of jobless persons).  Without social assistance, people without jobs would be destitute. This places elected officials and public servants in a conundrum—while wanting to provide some basic income assistance for those without work, they don’t want to ‘make life so comfortable’ for those persons so as to discourage them from actively looking for work. They also don’t want workers to quit their jobs in the belief that social assistance provides a ‘good living.’ In other words, by design, social assistance has two contradictory objectives: 1) to give people enough money to live on; and 2) to not give people enough money to live on.
- In Canada, social assistance coverage expanded in the post-World War II era; it then contracted in the 1980s and 1990s. In the years following World War II, Canada experienced low unemployment, high levels of tax revenue and a strong feeling of collective solidarity. During this time, senior orders of government designed and funded a social assistance system with benefit levels and rules that were generous relative to today. From the mid-1960s until the mid-1970s, this expansion was especially fast. (For more on the political and economic factors that led to the post-1970s contraction, see this 2014 article by Jim Stanford.)
- Most people agree that social assistance benefit levels are insufficient to live on. Across Canada, 70% of households on social assistance are “food insecure.” In fact, it’s rare to see an elected official or senior public servant even attempt to make a case that social assistance benefit levels are sufficient. In 1995, an Ontario provincial cabinet minister attempted to do this; he was roundly ridiculed. In Alberta, a “single employable adult” on social assistance receives approximately $8,000 annually to live on. (To see social assistance benefit levels for yourself, check out the most recent Welfare in Canada)
- Very few immigrants (relative to Canada’s general population) receive social assistance.That’s a finding of research done by Tracy Smith-Carrier and Jennifer Mitchell (and that research is presented in Chapter 17 of this 2015 book on social assistance in Canada). However, a very large percentage of members of First Nations receive “income assistance” (this issue is discussed in detail by Martin Papillon in Chapter 18 of the aforementioned book).
- In recent years, there’s been a substantial increase in persons with disabilities receiving social assistance. At a national level, John Stapleton and Anne Tweddle have written about this here. They find this increase to be especially apparent in Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia (and they find it to be most pronounced in Alberta). For a recent review of what this trend looks like in Alberta, see this recent report.
- The inadequacy of social assistance puts a strain on other parts of Canada’s social welfare system. Three specific points are worth making here. First, if social assistance benefit levels were higher, there would be less demand for emergency shelter beds (that’s one of the findings of this recent report). Second, most of the government funding required for social housing in Canada is for the “rent supplement” component of the assistance (i.e. financial assistance to cover the gap between what it costs the operator to pay for the housing, on the one hand, and what a low-income household can afford, on the other). There’d be less need for social housing funding if social assistance benefit levels were higher. Third, low income is associated with poor health outcomes, which in turn lead to higher health care costs. It’s therefore likely higher social assistance benefit levels would reduce health care costs in Canada.
- Many landlords discriminate against tenants who report social assistance as a source of income. This is commonly known by both social assistance recipients and their advocates. And in 2008, this theory was put to the test in a study where ‘mock phone calls’ were made to Toronto landlords; during the study, researchers found solid empirical support for the claim that landlords do indeed discriminate against social assistance recipients.
- Social assistance administrators do not track what happens to people who are denied coverage. In other words, when a person’s application for social assistance is rejected, there’s no systematic effort made to track what happens to them. However, researchers do sometimes look at what happens after people stop receiving social assistance; one such Canadian study is available here.
- A modest increase in social assistance benefit levels would likely reduce homelessness. A recent report estimates that modest increases in social assistance benefit levels would likely result in less need for emergency shelter beds for homeless persons. Specifically, the report suggests that a 15-20% increase in benefit levels for ‘single employables’ would likely result in a 15-20% decrease in demand for shelter beds.
In Sum. Across Canada, social assistance plays an important, but insufficient, role in poverty alleviation. Higher social assistance benefit levels would likely result in tangible outcomes, including less food insecurity, improved health outcomes and less homelessness. Part 2 of the present blog series will focus on the Alberta context.
The author wishes to thank Daniel Béland, Gerry Boychuk, Pierre-Marc Daigneault, Louise Gallagher, Seth Klein, Jennefer Laidley, Kara Layher, Lindsay Lenny, Michael Mendelson, Dionne Miazdyck-Shield, Munir Sheikh, Anne Tweddle and Donna Wood for invaluable assistance with this blog post. Any errors lie with the author.
 For more on the relationship between the labour market and social assistance receipt, see Gerard Boychuk’s chapter in this 2015 book. Figure 2.2 in the chapter consists of a line graph suggestive of a strong correlation (R2 = – 0.88) between the percentage of Canada’s adult population receiving social assistance, and the employment rate, over time.