Welfare rules forcing people into destitution, report finds
TheStar.com – news/Canada
Published Monday, Dec. 13, 2010. Laurie Monsebraaten, Social Justice Reporter
It is tougher to get welfare in Canada today than during the economic downturn of the early 1990s, the National Council of Welfare says in its latest report.
That’s because Ontario and most other provinces force people to drain their bank accounts and spend all of their savings before they qualify for help, says the report, released in Ottawa Monday.
As a result, it is almost impossible for those living on welfare to get back on their feet, says the council, created by Ottawa in 1969 to advise the minister of human resources on poverty in Canada.
Other problems include rates that fall far below any definition of poverty and welfare claw-backs that leave those who find some work no further ahead, the report notes.
“The combination of low asset limits, low earnings exemptions and low welfare rates — far below the poverty line — creates the perfect trap, especially for single people,” says council chair John Rook. “The absence of shock absorbers and springs that help people help themselves is completely counterproductive.”
Whitby single mother Kathy Scott, 56, is among those being driven into destitution.
After working for 26 years as an executive assistant for Bell Canada and for six years as an office manager at another company, she lost her job in 2008, just as the recession was taking hold.
Scott exhausted her 26-week EI entitlement last year and has been unable to find work — beyond dog sitting and house cleaning — despite sending out more than 2,000 job applications.
She has remortgaged her house and spent all but about $50,000 of her $150,000 Bell pension to support her two teenage children and a 7-year-old grand-niece she fosters through Children’s Aid. She receives some child support from her ex-husband and the CAS, but it is not enough to make ends meet.
Scott says she has been told she would have to sell her house and spend all of her pension before welfare authorities would even consider helping her.
“I had such a good job at Bell and I was always able to look after myself and everybody else,” she says. “It is quite a shock to be in this position.”
The council report, which analyzed 2009 welfare rates, found that Manitoba had the most generous asset limits, allowing employable people to keep up to $4,000 per person or as much as $16,000 for a single parent with two children.
But most other provinces allowed very meager savings. PEI had the lowest asset limits, allowing as little as $50 for an employable person or single parent receiving short-term welfare assistance.
Ontario allowed just $576 for a single person and $1,500 for a single parent. However, the province had the highest asset limits for disabled people, allowing up to $5,000 per person for those receiving welfare through the Ontario Disability Support Program, the report notes.
“Canada’s welfare system is a box with a tight lid,” said TD Bank’s former chief economist Don Drummond, who is among numerous individuals and groups who have been urging provinces to ease up on asset limits.
“Those in need must essentially first become destitute before they qualify for temporary assistance,” Drummond said in a statement. “But the record shows once you become destitute you tend to stay in that state.”
The council recommends improving income support programs outside the welfare system, such as federal and provincial child benefits and the federal Working Income tax Benefit (WITB), which is available to those on welfare and tops up earnings to make work pay.
The WITB “goes in the right direction,” says the report, but needs to be increased to act as a bridge to move people off welfare and into full-time employment.
Earlier this month, Ontario announced a comprehensive review of social assistance that is expected to address asset limits and earning exemptions among other welfare policies.
Welfare incomes in Canada*
• The highest welfare income for an employable single person was $9,593 in Newfoundland.
• The lowest was $3,773 in New Brunswick.
• In Ontario it was $7,501.
• The highest welfare income for a single disabled person was $12,905 in Ontario.
• The lowest was $8,665 in New Brunswick.
• The highest welfare income for a lone parent with one child was $19,297 in Newfoundland.
• The lowest was $14,829 in Manitoba.
• In Ontario it was$17,372
* Annual incomes in 2009, including child and tax benefits
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