Governments should see social assistance as a solution, not a problem
“Social assistance is an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to ensure that people have adequate incomes and can live lives of health and dignity and participate in the labour market as much or as little as they’re able.”
That was Jennefer Laidley on Maytree’s recent webinar for our annual report, Welfare in Canada, which explores the total incomes of people receiving social assistance in provinces and territories across Canada. Unsurprisingly, we found that they are still insufficient.
We were struck by how her comment uncovered one of the fundamental problems with how our governments approach social assistance: that social assistance is a problem rather than an opportunity to solve a problem. People in government tend to see social assistance as “a draw on government resources rather than as an opportunity for governments to make a positive change in people’s lives,” Jennefer added.
This goes a fair way in explaining why our social assistance systems function so poorly. They have become exercises in minimizing costs, rather than maximizing returns.
We have not traditionally seen social assistance as a positive part of our social safety net, one that shores up our human right to an adequate standard of living. Our systems do not treat recipients as people who are claiming their human rights. The idea that social assistance is a form of benevolent charity, rather than the government’s primary duty, permeates the program. The idea that people who receive social assistance are to blame for their situation, that they don’t deserve help, does too. As a society, we seem content to under-invest in social assistance and prevent people from getting onto a pathway out of poverty.
Social assistance, as currently delivered, keeps people in poverty. As many as 60 per cent of the 2.8 million people who live below the poverty line in Canada received social assistance in 2021. Social assistance rules vary by province and territory, but some of them seem designed to keep people down. Aside from woefully inadequate rates, the rules that determine how much money a person receives, and for what, can only be described as punishing. For example, people can actually be worse off when they start to get income from other sources (such as a job) because their social assistance benefits will be clawed back. In Ontario, someone who is homeless receives less money because they’re not paying rent. These types of rules make it nearly impossible to get by, never mind to ever get out of poverty.
Shouldn’t social assistance prevent poverty? At minimum, it should be a net that prevents people from falling into abject poverty. But it should also provide a ladder, something that people can use to help them up. By failing to deliver social assistance that performs either of these functions, governments are squandering the opportunity to improve people’s lives, their health, and, where possible, their ability to get and maintain paid work.
Every year, Maytree produces the Welfare in Canada report, and every year it gives us pause. The inadequacy of social assistance incomes remains staggering, despite its predictability. We all have a human right to an adequate standard of living; governments have the duty to use the full extent of their resources to respect, protect, and fulfill this human right for every person. Social assistance, in its current form, does not satisfy this obligation.
We also pause to consider that year after year we, a small private organization, are doing what should be done by governments themselves. Collecting, analyzing, and publishing data are keys to accountability and transparency, which are themselves fundamental aspects of a human rights-based approach. To make progress on eliminating poverty, we need to know our starting point and how our actions (and inactions) are impacting people’s lives. Governments need to invest in good, timely data systems to measure how the elements of our social safety net are working. This, too, is governments’ duty.
And they need to invest in those parts of our social systems that are not working for people, the parts that are exacerbating poverty: minimum wages that are too low, worker protections that are too weak; addiction and mental health care that can’t keep up with demand; a housing system that has been allowed to run wild. The list, unfortunately, goes on.
The problem is that our systems create poverty. The answer is to use our systems to solve poverty. Our income security, health care, employment, education, and housing systems, and all of the strands that make up our social safety net, should prevent people from falling into poverty, and help them out of poverty if they do fall.
Social assistance is part of the solution if it is adequate and enables people to succeed. Governments need to recognize the opportunity that social assistance presents and invest in it accordingly.