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

Interior Health reported 33 new COVID-19 cases on March 5. (Black Press Files)
Interior Health reports 33 new COVID-19 cases on March 5

Over 300,000 vaccine doses have been administered provincewide.

The wind has been gusting Friday, March 5 in Williams Lake with the risk of a thunderstorm in the forecast for later in the afternoon. (Angie Mindus photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
More than 500 customers in Cariboo without power, risk of thunderstorm Friday afternoon

The BC Hydro map is adding more power outages as the afternoon unfolds

Many members of the Williams Lake Cross Country Ski Club (pictured) have teamed up with the Cariboo Chilcotin Conservation Society to host a free ski in celebration of World Water Day. (Patrick Davies photo - Black Press Media)
Conservation society, cross country ski club, celebrate World Water Day with free ski March 6

The free ski will be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, March 6 at Bull Mountain

International Women’s Day is March 8. (Internationalwomensday.com)
International Women’s Day 2021: #choosetochallenge

International Women’s Day is marked annually on March 8

The OT Timber Frames Ltd. crew of Wacey MacDonald (from left), Sean Empey, Josh Douglas, Kurt Leuenberger, Ruedi Baumann, Simon Gansner, Annie Murray (in front) and Josie the dog stand in front of a newly constructed timber frame outdoor classroom for the 150 Mile House Elementary School. (Photo submitted)
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C. on the COVID-19 situation. (B.C. government)
Dr. Bonnie Henry predicts a ‘post-pandemic world’ for B.C. this summer

‘Extending this second dose provides very high real-world protection to more people, sooner’

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Malawian police guard AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines after the shipment arrived in Lilongwe, Malawi, Friday March 5, 2021. Canada is expecting its first shipments of AstraZeneca vaccine next week. (Associated Press/Thoko Chikondi)
B.C.’s daily COVID-19 cases climb to 634 Friday, four more deaths

Currently 255 people in hospital, 66 in intensive care

A crashed helicopter is seen near Mt. Gardner on Bowen Island on Friday March 5, 2021. Two people were taken to hospital in serious but stable condition after the crash. (Irene Paulus/contributed)
2 people in serious condition after helicopter goes down on Bowen Island

Unclear how many passengers aboard and unclear where the helicopter was going

Surrey Pretrial in Newton. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)
B.C. transgender inmate to get human rights hearing after being held in mostly male jail

B.C. Human Rights Tribunal member Amber Prince on March 3 dismissed the pretrial’s application to have Makayla Sandve’s complaint dismissed

Supporters rally outside court as Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church is in court to appeal bail conditions, after he was arrested for holding day services in violation of COVID-19 rules, in Edmonton, Alta., on Thursday March 4, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
‘Law remains valid:’ Pastor accused of violating health orders to remain in jail

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is representing the pastor

The Netflix logo on an iPhone. B.C. delayed imposing sales tax on digital services and sweetened carbonated beverages as part of its response to COVID-19. Those taxes take effect April 1, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Matt Rourke
B.C. applies 7% sales tax on streaming, vaping, sweet drinks April 1

Measures from 2020 budget were delayed due to COVID-19

Chief Don Tom of the Tsartlip First Nation was outraged after Green MLA Adam Olsen revealed on social media that the community had been experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak – a fact the First Nation had chosen to keep private to avoid racist backlash as experienced by the Cowichan Tribes when an outbreak was declared there in January. (Black Press Media file photo)
B.C. First Nation ‘outraged’ after Green MLA reveals COVID-19 outbreak

Tsartlip First Nation chief shares concerns about racist backlash, MLA apologizes

A lawyer wears a face mask and gloves to curb the spread of COVID-19 while waiting to enter B.C. Supreme Court, in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, Aug. 28, 2020. British Columbia’s highest court has sided with the land owner in a dispute over public access to public land. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. high court finds in favour of large landowner in fight over access to pair of lakes

The Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club launched legal action after the cattle company blocked road and trail access

Most Read