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Policy brief

Interpreting the data: What are the key trends in Social Assistance Summaries, 2021?

Published on 13/07/2022

This policy brief provides an analysis of data published in Maytree’s Social Assistance Summaries, 2021 report.

The purpose of the brief is to distill the key findings of the report and to identify how the data informs possible policy actions to improve social assistance programs across Canada.

The data from Social Assistance Summaries, 2021 reveals the following key findings:

  • The number of social assistance beneficiaries decreased across the country in 2021, likely because of the impact of pandemic-related emergency supports.
  • Unattached singles comprise the majority of social assistance recipients across most programs in Canada.
  • There is relatively a gender balance among recipients of social assistance across programs in Canada.


  • In Canada, social assistance programs are within the jurisdictional responsibility of provincial and territorial governments. As such, Maytree develops its Social Assistance Summaries reports by engaging with public officials across the country to collect and verify the number of people receiving social assistance.
  • Maytree’s Social Assistance Summaries, 2021 report provides the number of cases and beneficiaries receiving social assistance for 23 provincial and territorial social assistance programs.
  • The 2021 edition of the report provides an overview of the situation in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting some of the effects of emergency supports on social assistance.
  • Furthermore, for the first time, the 2021 edition also provides disaggregated data based on household category and gender/sex. The goal of this data is to paint a clearer picture of who is receiving social assistance.

Please note that while all social assistance programs are represented together in the figures below, it is for illustrative and not comparative purposes. This is because jurisdictions provide social assistance data according to three different reference periods: Nine provide fiscal year average data (average from April 2020 to March 2021); Newfoundland and Labrador, and Nunavut provide calendar year average data (average from January 2021 to December 2021); and Alberta and Yukon provide point-in-time data on March 31, 2021.


The number of people receiving social assistance declined

  • Figure 1 illustrates the percentage change of each social assistance program between 2020 and 2021 by province and territory. While there are 23 social assistance programs in Canada, the figure has 21 bars. Three Saskatchewan programs—Saskatchewan Income Support (SIS), Saskatchewan Assistance Program (SAP), and Transitional Employment Allowance (TEA)—were combined into one because SAP and TEA were being phased out in summer of 2021 and replaced by SIS, which was introduced in 2019.

Figure 1 – Percentage change in social assistance beneficiaries for each program in 12 jurisdictions, between 2020 and 2021

  • Of the 21 social assistance programs assessed, 16 saw a decline in their number of beneficiaries in 2021. There were only five programs in four jurisdictions that did not see such a decline.
  • According to Figure 1, 11 of 19 programs saw their number of beneficiaries fall by over five per cent in 2021. Seven saw a drop over ten per cent. Two saw a drop over 25 per cent.

Pandemic supports affected the number of people receiving social assistance

  • The annual change in the number of people receiving social assistance is complex and tied to a large number of economic, labour market, and social factors. No one factor can explain the entire variation in the number of beneficiaries, but certain factors may have a more significant impact.
  • While some may interpret this as fewer people living in deep poverty and a transition of many beneficiaries from social assistance to a stronger attachment to the labour market, this is likely not the case. Instead, the general decrease in social assistance beneficiaries likely reflected the impact of emergency pandemic supports (the receipt of which may have made people ineligible for social assistance support).[1]
  • The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) in particular was introduced as an alternative to Employment Insurance (EI), which was not capable of meeting the needs of the time. One main difference between the two programs was the employment hour threshold, which was lower for CERB. This lower barrier allowed many social assistance recipients who lost their employment to qualify for CERB, where they would not have qualified for EI.
  • Many social assistance recipients who accessed CERB were rendered ineligible to receive social assistance because their earned income was higher than their respective program’s earning threshold. This means that by accessing CERB they lost their social assistance income.[2]
  • British Columbia, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories are the only jurisdictions that fully exempted CERB from qualifying income, which means that social assistance recipients did not lose their benefits by accessing CERB.
  • Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec partially exempted the CERB benefits. A recipient’s earnings from CERB were partially taken into account when calculating the qualifying income for social assistance. However, the income from CERB was high enough that all recipients in those provinces were above the threshold to still be eligible for social assistance benefits, with the exception of the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) in Alberta.
  • CERB was included in the calculation of income in all other jurisdictions, which resulted in recipients losing their eligibility for social assistance benefits.
  • The impact of this interaction can clearly be seen in Figure 1 above. Jurisdictions where recipients became ineligible for social assistance by accessing CERB all saw declines in their number of beneficiaries in 2021.
  • Both British Columbia’s programs and Alberta’s AISH were three of the five programs that saw an increase in the number of beneficiaries in 2021 (along with PEI’s AccessAbility and the Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability (SAID)). Ontario’s ODSP saw a slight decline of 0.3 per cent in 2021, much more modest than for other jurisdictions. Yukon and the Northwest Territories saw more significant decreases despite CERB not impacting social assistance benefits. However, this is likely attributed to a different pandemic factor.

CERB repayments will exacerbate poverty

  • Given the uncertainty at the outset of the pandemic and evolving eligibility criteria for CERB, people applied and received CERB in good faith. However, many are being asked to pay it back as they eventually did not qualify. The federal government mailed one million repayment letters to those who were ineligible.[3]
  • Furthermore, due to most provincial and territorial government eligibility rules, many social assistance recipients who also received CERB would have lost their eligibility for social assistance.
  • This interaction doubles the burden on social recipients who received, but are now deemed ineligible, for CERB. They not only lost social assistance benefit payments, but are being asked to pay back some or all of the CERB amount they received.[4]
  • The federal government has addressed a similar issue by providing a compensatory one-time grant to seniors who saw a decrease of their GIS benefits after accessing CERB during the pandemic.[5] The federal government has thus demonstrated it can do the same for social assistance recipients, though such payments will require collaborating with provinces and territories.
  • While decreases in the number of social assistance recipients may be thought of as a positive trend, they are hiding the quiet impacts of negative interactions between social assistance and the receipt of emergency pandemic supports. Many people may have become ineligible for social assistance, even though they are in need of income assistance.

Unattached single adults are the largest household group receiving social assistance

  • The 2021 edition of Social Assistance Summaries is the first to provide disaggregated data on the household type of social assistance beneficiaries. They are divided into four main categories: unattached singles, single parents, couples with children, and couples without children.
  • As Figure 2 demonstrates, in 2021, unattached singles (that is, single adults living alone without a spouse or children) were the majority in ten programs. They are also the largest or second largest group in every social assistance program across Canada.
  • Interestingly, in provinces that have two or more social assistance programs, the program aimed at people with disabilities has a strong majority of unattached single beneficiaries.

Figure 2 – Percentage of social assistance recipients who are unattached singles for each program in 11 jurisdictions, 2021

  • However, while unattached singles are the most likely household to receive social assistance, they consistently have the lowest benefits.
  • Figure 3 provides the 2020 total welfare incomes of unattached singles considered employable and unattached singles with disabilities relative to Canada’s Poverty Line (MBM) and the deep poverty threshold (75 per cent of MBM) for all ten provinces. Territories are not included because an MBM is still being developed for them. Recipients are assumed to have received social assistance during the 2020 calendar year and to not have any employment income.

Figure 3 – Welfare incomes of unattached singles in each province relative to the Official Poverty Line (MBM) and the deep poverty threshold, 2020

A. Unattached singles considered employable

B. Unattached singles with disabilities

Source: Jennefer Laidley and Mohy Tabbara. Welfare in Canada, 2020. December 2021. Maytree. Accessed at:

  • As Figure 3A demonstrates, unattached singles considered employable receiving social assistance in all ten provinces live in deep poverty, many living with incomes far below the deep income poverty threshold.
  • Figure 3B similarly shows that unattached singles with disabilities in all ten provinces live below Canada’s Official Poverty Line, and below the deep income poverty threshold in eight provinces. However, it is important to remember that both measurements do not account for the higher cost of living faced by persons with disabilities, and thus these additional costs are not reflected here.
  • The new Social Assistance Summaries data on households clearly demonstrates that unattached singles are the most likely recipients of social assistance throughout Canada. However, their total welfare incomes (include social assistance benefits) have kept them below, if not far below, the deep poverty line.
  • Federal, provincial, and territorial governments must address their long-standing neglect of this population. Addressing the inadequacy of unattached singles’ income support is integral towards ensuring that everyone in Canada can realize their human right to an adequate standard of living.

There is a relatively equal gender split among recipients of social assistance

  • The 2021 edition of Social Assistance Summaries is also the first to comprehensively publish disaggregated data on sex or gender (depending on the jurisdiction’s nomenclature). The analysis focuses on male and female categories, although some jurisdictions gave recipients a third option, and others allowed them to keep their response blank.
  • According to Figure 4, gender or sex is split roughly halfway between females and males for 18 of the 20 social assistance programs, with the percentage of females ranging between 43.6 per cent and 55.4 per cent. The two exceptions are Alberta Supports with 62.5 per cent females and Ontario Works with 63.9 per cent females.

Figure 4 – Percentage of females receiving social assistance for each program in 11 jurisdictions, 2021

  • However, the equal representation of males and females does not mean that there are no gendered inequities in social assistance. For example, rules around eligibility of social assistance create a disincentive for recipients to enter into a relationship because they would no longer receive benefits on an individualized basis (and the couple benefits for social assistance recipients are often less than two unattached single benefits combined). This loss of benefits, especially for females, can exacerbate inequities in their household. As a result, some policy researchers have argued that income supports should be individualized to reduce these inequities.[6]

Key takeaways

The data released in Social Assistance Summaries, 2021 provides a depth of insight into the important trends and current state of social assistance enrollment in Canada. The analysis in this policy brief provides a first set of pathways for governments to improve the human right to an adequate standard of living of some of the most vulnerable people in Canada.

Here are some key takeaways:

  • The decrease of social assistance recipients in 2021 cannot be perceived as a victory associated with a meaningful decrease in poverty. The decrease is much more likely associated with a large number of social assistance recipients accessing CERB and other pandemic emergency supports, and losing eligibility for their social assistance benefits.
  • While they may have been momentarily better off financially during the pandemic, many now find themselves without pandemic supports and without social assistance. This problem is compounded with many CERB recipients being asked to pay back the benefits they received because the federal government determined that they had not been eligible at the time. As the federal government has granted many GIS recipients amnesty and restored their supports, they should work with provincial and territorial governments to do the same for social assistance recipients.
  • Unattached singles are overrepresented in every social assistance program across Canada. However, federal, provincial, and territorial governments have long neglected this group, often preferring to focus on families with children and seniors. Because of this, welfare incomes of unattached singles have become highly inadequate, falling well below the deep poverty income threshold in almost every province. Governments cannot continue to ignore this significant number of people and deny them a life of dignity. Investments are needed to improve their standard of living.
  • Females are as likely to receive social assistance as males. However, it does not mean that there are not gendered issues to be considered. Additional data on gender or sex and more in-depth research is necessary to better understand and address the concerns of females receiving social assistance.

This brief is only a first glimpse into the trends in Social Assistance Summaries, 2021. We hope other researchers, policy professionals, lived experts, and advocates will take this data and further our understanding of who is receiving social assistance, and what solutions are available to address deep poverty in Canada.


[1] Campaign 2000. “Briefing note: CERB repayment amnesty campaign.” April 2021. Accessed at:

[2] Gillian Petit and Lindsay M. Tedds. “Interactions between Federal and Provincial Cash Transfer Programs: The Effect of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit on Provincial Income Assistance Eligibility and Benefits”. May 18, 2021. Kathy L. Brock and Geoffrey Hale (Eds.). Managing Canadian Federalism Beyond Pandemic. University of Toronto Press. Forthcoming.

[3] Jenna Moon. “More than one million Canadians have to repay CERB — and in some cases EI is being clawed back to do it.” June 10, 2022. Toronto Star. Accessed at:

[4] Jenna Moon. “This ODSP recipient qualified for CERB. Now the CRA wants it back.” June 29, 2022. Toronto Star. Accessed at:

[5] Employment and Social Development Canada. “One-time grant for Guaranteed Income Supplement recipients who received pandemic benefits.” March 2022. Accessed at:

[6] David Green, Jonathan Rhys Kesselman and Lindsay Tedds. “Considerations for basic income as a COVID-19 response.” University of Calgary School of Public Policy. SPP Briefing paper, Volume 13:11. May 2020. Accessed at:


Income security


The policy brief distills the key findings of the Social Assistance Summaries, 2021 report and identifies how the data informs possible policy actions to improve social assistance programs across Canada.