Doug Pawson, executive director of End Homelessness St. Johns, poses for a picture in the city centre of St. John’s, N.L. on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. Anti-poverty advocates say the CERB has given provincial governments a windfall that should be reinvested. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly

Doug Pawson, executive director of End Homelessness St. Johns, poses for a picture in the city centre of St. John’s, N.L. on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. Anti-poverty advocates say the CERB has given provincial governments a windfall that should be reinvested. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly

Advocates say provinces should invest CERB savings in social welfare programs

As the benefit hit bank accounts in April, many provinces saw their income support caseloads drop

At a time when anxieties were expected to run high for everyone, the Calgary Counselling Centre saw something surprising during the pandemic lockdown period: distress levels in their low-income clients dropped.

CEO Robbie Babins-Wagner says the centre, which employs about 80 counsellors, psychologists and social workers, kept careful data to map out how the pandemic affected different types of people. Before each session, clients are asked to fill out a distress self-assessment test, and they’re assigned a score out of 180 based on their answers.

For the first two months that the $2,000-a-month Canada Emergency Response Benefit was available, clients who had been earning $20,000 or less each year reported a 5-point drop in distress levels, on average. Babins-Wagner said that figure is “significant:” No other income bracket reported a drop in distress.

Babins-Wagner thinks one likely explanation is that these clients found a bit of peace being on the CERB and were no longer trying to eke out a living with low-wage jobs or income support.

“I think it really speaks to the need for consideration of a minimum income or some kind of financial mechanism to provide for people who need support, to get them out of poverty,” she said in a recent interview.

Anti-poverty advocates across the country agree, and some say the CERB has given provincial governments a windfall that should be used toward that goal. As the benefit hit bank accounts in April, many provinces saw their income support caseloads drop dramatically over the next months, as people migrated to the more lucrative, federally funded benefit.

Advocates are calling on provincial governments to invest those savings back into social assistance programs to lift people out of poverty.

Lee Stevens, policy and research specialist with Vibrant Communities Calgary, is one of them. According to the Maytree Foundation, a Toronto-based anti-poverty organization, a single person on income support in Alberta in 2018 made just over $8,100 — one of the lowest rates in the country, Stevens notes.

Alberta saw a 28 per cent drop in income support cases from April to August, or nearly 15,000 files, according to government data. Stevens said the province should be investing that savings back into its social assistance programs, and she points to Babins-Wagner’s data for justification. To Stevens, the data shows bringing people up to the poverty line not only improves their well-being, it could save the provincial government money in areas like health care.

“We don’t want to go back to normal. Normal is what got us here,” she said. “COVID laid bare so many inequalities, and this is our opportunity to right some of those wrongs, to fill some of those holes in our social safety net.” she said.

READ MORE: Early figures for new aid and EI provide glimpse of how post-CERB supports to be used

Newfoundland and Labrador offers some of the highest income support rates in the country, according to the Maytree Foundation report, but at just over $11,300 for a single person in 2018, it’s not nearly enough to live on, said Doug Pawson, director of End Homelessness St. John’s.

The province’s income support cases have dropped by just over 8 per cent from April to September. Like Stevens, Pawson says it’s very likely because people are switching to the CERB — at 14.8 and 11.7 per cent, the unemployment rates in Newfoundland and Labrador and Alberta are the two highest among Canadian provinces, and it’s unlikely people are suddenly finding jobs.

“We heard a lot of different folks in the community talk about using the money to buy furniture, to get caught up on debts,” he said, noting both are normally impossible on income support.

A spokesman for the Newfoundland and Labrador government said it’s too early to determine whether the province will see a windfall in income support savings. But through his own calculations, Pawson estimates the government saved over $2 million in that time period alone. He hopes it will be reinvested somehow to help bring people out of poverty.

“The take-away is people don’t have enough to live, whether they’re low-wage earners or whether they’re income support recipients,” he said. “We just need some political will and courage to recognize that people who are low-wage earners and people who are on income supports are not drains on our system.”

If people ultimately wind up having to switch back to below-poverty levels of income support, “it’s a failure for sure,” he said.

In Ontario, where caseloads dropped by 10 per cent from April to August — nearly 46,000 cases — Hannah Aldrige says the massive migration from social assistance to the CERB has eliminated any room for provincial governments to say they cannot afford to increase social assistance rates.

Aldridge is a data and policy analyst for the Maytree Foundation, and she says the CERB created a two-tier system of support, where some are worthy of help and an acceptable standard of living while others are not. She said she feels bad for anyone who may have to plummet back to income support levels after the CERB, but she feels worse for those who never left.

“They’ve been completely forgotten about in this pandemic,” she said.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

police
Alberta RCMP wants you to receive your parcels

Last year, in all of 2019, there were over 4,000 occurrences of mail theft within Alberta RCMP jurisdiction

SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, which causes COVID-19, emerge from the surface of cells isolated from a patient in the U.S. and cultured in a lab in a 2020 electron microscope image. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-HO, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories
Alberta now has 17,743 active cases of COVID-19

Province now has 17,743 active cases

Stettler Food Bank is well stocked after generous donations during the holiday season. Contributed photo
Slight increase in demand at the Stettler Food Bank over recent weeks

The Stettler Food Bank is located in the basement of Stettler’s United Church

Sign
The Stettler Pheasant Festival reflects on community impact

The festival has seen people visit from all over western Canada and into the United States

Idyllic winter scenes are part of the atmosphere of the holiday season, and are depicted in many seasonal movies. How much do you know about holiday movies? Put your knowledge to the test. (Pixabay.com)
QUIZ: Test your knowledge of holiday movies and television specials

The festive season is a time for relaxing and enjoying some seasonal favourites

Ten-month-old Aidan Deschamps poses for a photo with his parents Amanda Sully and Adam Deschamps in this undated handout photo. Ten-month-old Aidan Deschamps was the first baby in Canada to be diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy through Ontario’s newborn screening program. The test was added to the program six days before he was born. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Children’s Hospital Eastern Ontario *MANDATORY CREDIT*
First newborn tested for spinal muscular atrophy in Canada hits new milestones

‘If Aidan had been born any earlier or anywhere else our story would be quite different’

People line up at a COVID-19 assessment centre during the COVID-19 pandemic in Scarborough, Ont., on Wednesday, December 2, 2020. Toronto and Peel region continue to be in lockdown. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
COVID-19 vaccine approval could be days away as pressures mount on health-care system

Many health officials in regions across the country have reported increasing pressures on hospitals

File Photo
Sylvan Lake Town Council squashes mask bylaw

The bylaw did not make it past first reading, after a 4-3 vote defeated the motion

A logo for Netflix on a remote control is seen in Portland, Ore.,Aug. 13, 2020. Experts in taxation and media say a plan announced Monday by the government will ultimately add to the cost of digital services and goods sold by foreign companies. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Jenny Kane
‘Netflix tax’ for digital media likely to raise prices for consumers, experts say

The government says Canadian companies already collect those taxes when they make digital sales

Gaming content was big on YouTube in 2020. (Black Press Media files)
What did Canadians watch on Youtube during isolation? Workouts, bird feeders

Whether it was getting fit or ‘speaking moistly,’ Canadians had time to spare this year

A teacher places the finishing touches on the welcome sign at Hunter’s Glen Junior Public School which is part of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) during the COVID-19 pandemic in Scarborough, Ont., on Sept. 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Hindsight 2020: How do you preserve a year many Canadians would rather forget?

Figuring out how to preserve the story of the pandemic poses a series of challenges

Team Manitoba celebrate after defeating Team Ontario to win the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Moose Jaw, Sask., Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020. Curling Canada wants Calgary’s Canada Olympic Park to be a curling hub for the season’s top events. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Calgary facility set to become curling hub during pandemic

Curling Canada has provisional approval for Calgary’s hub-city concept from Alberta Health

Most Read