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The Progressive Economics Forum

Social Assistance in Canada

This week I am attending a conference entitled “Welfare Reform in Canada:  Provincial Social Assistance in Comparative Perspective,” organized by Professor Daniel Béland.

The focus of the conference is “social assistance,” which typically encompasses both last-resort social assistance (i.e. ‘welfare’) and disability benefits.  In Ontario, the former is known as Ontario Works and the latter as the Ontario Disability Support Program.  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 Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (but “aligned with the rates and eligibility criteria for off-reserve residents of the reference province or territory”).

I was a discussant on two papers at the conference.  Some of the points I made in that capacity include the following:

Mixed Objectives – I believe that social assistance programs in Canada have two major objectives: 1) to give their recipients enough money to live on; and 2) to not give their recipients enough money to live on (in part to encourage recipients to look for paid employment, in part to discourage would-be recipients from becoming recipients, and in part out of a fear that some voters might oppose higher benefit levels).  In light of this inherent contradiction, I think that social assistance is a challenging program to design, administer and defend.

Tax Credits – Tax credits (federal, provincial and territorial) have taken on greater importance for social assistance recipients over the past 15 years.  Some households with children now earn (slightly) more on an annual basis from tax credits than they do from social assistance (though it should be noted that tax credits are much less substantial for singles without dependents).  Any thoughtful analysis of social assistance analysis in Canada must consider the role of tax credits.

Training – In a March column, Thomas Walkom argues that senior levels of government in Canada do not make substantial investments in training for workers.  Nor do employers (for the most part).  Rather, “cheap workers,” who are already trained, are imported from abroad.  This raises an important question: if senior levels of government are unwilling to provide social assistance recipients with training, how realistic is it to expect them to be successful in the labour market?

Poverty Reduction – Most provinces and territories have implemented ‘poverty reduction strategies‘ in recent years.  The jury is still out on how effective they will prove to be; however, it could be that, going forward, voters would find improvements to social assistance programs (including increases in benefit levels) more palatable if such changes are made as part of poverty reduction strategies that have clear goals, including goals related to both job creation and training.

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