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Opinion

Glass half full? The impacts of CERB on people receiving social assistance in Ontario

Published on 21/04/2020

The economic impacts of COVID-19 have spared few in our province. Amongst the hardest hit are people living in poverty receiving social assistance. Being able to pay for a full glass of orange juice has gotten just that much harder.

For the poor, the cost of living has increased substantially. The closure of many food banks and community spaces, for example, have meant that people living at the margins of our society have seen their bills increase. People with disabilities—many of whom are immunocompromised—may not be able to safely get their groceries, and thus require costly delivery options to get food. Access to the internet in public spaces and the delivery of flyers and pamphlets—integral for knowing what’s going on—have all but disappeared. The “isolation deficit,” as our colleague John Stapleton has aptly called it, is real.

COVID-19 has made the challenge of making ends meet much greater for those already in poverty.

This includes the 75,000 workers in Ontario who receive social assistance. And just like millions of workers across Canada, many of the workers who receive social assistance are impacted by the COVID-19 labour market downturn. They may have lost their job, needed to quarantine themselves, provided care for others, or seen a significant decrease in hours. As a result, they are eligible for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) just like all other workers in Canada.

Unfortunately, the receipt of the CERB has not alleviated the stress for many workers receiving social assistance. That’s because there have been questions about how CERB is treated for the purposes of calculating their social assistance amount. Some feared that CERB would be treated like other income replacement programs (e.g., Employment Insurance, Canada Pension Plan-Disability, Veterans’ benefits) which would result in a dollar-for-dollar clawback of social assistance amounts. This would mean that social assistance recipients would have their benefits reduced to zero, and that they would no longer have access to ancillary benefits (such as prescription medications).

Given the increase in costs that people living in poverty are experiencing, many have called on the provincial government to exclude CERB from the calculation of income for social assistance recipients. This would help ensure that people receiving social assistance would continue to get their social assistance income and ancillary benefits.

However, the provincial government has decided against excluding CERB from the calculation of social assistance income. While it doesn’t treat CERB as an income replacement program (with its 100% clawback), the government treats it like other employment earnings in social assistance—that is, it will claw back 50% in social assistance income for every dollar of CERB, after a $200/month exemption.  Although this means that people receiving social assistance and CERB will see a decrease in their social assistance income, overall, many people will nonetheless be in a better position to make ends meet.

For some people, however, the treatment of CERB as employment income could reduce their social assistance to zero. To ensure no one gets pushed off social assistance, the government will provide affected people a nominal amount in social assistance income. This will help people maintain access to social assistance and ancillary benefits, regardless of how the math between their earnings, social assistance income, and CERB nets out.

Would it have been better for workers receiving social assistance if there was no clawback? For sure. It would have left more money in the pockets of workers living in poverty.

Although it’s not perfect, the government’s decision may be a step in the right direction.

Here’s why.

The complex interactions between different benefits have been a quagmire in Ontario’s social policy architecture for decades. While the treatment of CERB isn’t what many had hoped for, it might set us on a path of a series of policy decisions that better support people living in poverty.

In the immediate term, the government is re-investing the savings the government accrues from the clawback into broader supports for social assistance recipients. This will help ensure that savings generated through the clawback are put back into the hands of people receiving social assistance to help counter the “the isolation deficit” experienced by all social assistance recipients.

In the longer term, the treatment of CERB like employment earnings may be the first step in treating all income replacement programs like employment earnings. Moving towards a 50% clawback for these programs instead of the current the dollar-for-dollar approach would better ensure that people are able to keep more of their incomes that they are eligible for. This would be a big step towards an income support policy decision that advocates have long asked for.

While the COVID-19 pandemic exposes the tears in our social safety net, we have an opportunity to push for changes that help weave the net back together.

The success of Ontario’s economic responses to COVID-19 will be measured by how it treats its most vulnerable. On the treatment of CERB for social assistance recipients, we’re partly there. But more can, and needs to be done, to fill the glass.

Summary

COVID-19 has made the challenge of making ends meet much greater for those already in poverty. This includes the 75,000 workers in Ontario who receive social assistance.

Topic(s)

Income security, Poverty