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

Amanda Parsons, a registered nurse on staff at the Northwood Care facility, administers a dose of the Moderna vaccine to Ann Hicks, 77, in Halifax on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan-Pool
61 new COVID-19 cases, two more deaths in Interior Health

Twenty-nine people are in hospital, seven of whom are in intensive care

(Big White Ski Resort)
28 more cases of COVID-19 linked to Big White cluster

More than 200 cases have been identified since the cluster was announced

Community mental health workers are in high demand, and a new program at Selkirk College will provide opportunities in this field. File Photo
Selkirk College to train community mental health workers

Twelve students will complete two courses enabling them to work in health and human services

Dr. Cori Lausen, bat specialist, has questions about logging in an unusual bat habitat near Beasley. Photo: Submitted
Kaslo biologist questions logging at unique West Kootenay bat site

Dr. Cori Lausen, a bat specialist, studies a population of bats above Beasley

Robbie Campbell lost his livelihood when the pandemic shut down Shambhala Music Festival. Instead, he spent part of 2020 working on a children’s book called Tulip that is now available. Photo: Submitted
In a lousy year, a Kootenay man was saved by a pink T-rex

Robbie Campbell became a children’s author after the pandemic cost him his livelihood

Syringe is prepared with one of B.C.’s first vials of Pfizer vaccine to prevent COVID-19, Victoria, Dec. 22, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 caseload stays steady with 465 more Tuesday

No new outbreaks in health care facilities, 12 more deaths

New Westminster TV production designer, Rick Whitfield, has designed an office in a box for British Columbians in need of a private workspace. (BC Box Office photo)
PHOTOS: B.C. man designs ‘box office’ solution for those working from home

‘A professionally designed workspace on your property, away from the distractions of home’

Chilliwack ER doctor Marc Greidanus is featured in a video, published Jan. 18, 2021, where he demonstrates and describes effectiveness of various styles of masks. (Youtube)
VIDEO: Emergency room doctor runs through pros and cons of various masks

‘We’ve been asked to wear a mask and it’s not that hard,’ Greidanus says.

(Pixabay photo)
VIDEO: Tip to Metro Vancouver transit police helps woman 4,000 km away in Ohio

Sgt. Clint Hampton says transit police were alerted to a YouTube video of the woman in mental distress

A woman types on her laptop in Miami in a Monday, Dec. 12, 2016, photo illustration. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Wilfredo Lee
British Columbia government lax on cybersecurity practices, auditor reports

The audit did not highlight a specific threat, but it found breaches in cybersecurity are increasing globally

Cranbrook Food Bank coordinator Deanna Kemperman, Potluck Cafe Society executive director Naved Noorani and Sunshine Coast Community Services Society executive director Catherine Leach join B.C.’s new Municipal Affairs Minister Josie Osborne on a video call about B.C. gaming grants, Jan. 19, 2021. (B.C. government)
B.C. gaming grants reorganized for COVID-19 priorities

Minister highlights community kitchens, food banks

(Pixabay photo)
‘Cocaine bananas’ arrive at Kelowna grocery stores after mix up from Colombia: RCMP

Kelowna RCMP recently concluded an international drug investigation after finding cocaine in local grocers’ banana shipments in 2019

A new video from NCCIH and BC Northern Health titled ‘Healing in Pandemic Times: Indigenous Peoples, Stigma and COVID-19’ was animated by Joanne Gervais. (Photo Provided By: NCCIH Archives)
VIDEO: Stigma against Indigenous people is a ‘social sickness’

A new short animated video is aiming to educate the public on the stigmatization

A pinniped was attacked by an unseen predator off the shores of Dallas Road Monday night. (Courtesy of Steffani Cameron)
VIDEO: Seal hunting, not being hunted in video shot off Victoria waterfront

Victoria woman captures footage of pinniped activity off Dallas Road

Most Read