Social Assistance Summaries

About Social Assistance Summaries

What is Social Assistance Summaries?

Social Assistance Summaries uses data provided by provincial and territorial government officials to track the number of social assistance recipients across Canada. It also includes a brief description of the social assistance programs in each jurisdiction.

This resource was established by the Caledon Institute of Social Policy to maintain data previously published in the Social Assistance Statistical Report by the federal government. In 2018, Maytree assumed responsibility for updating the series.

What is social assistance?

Social assistance is the income program of last resort. It is intended for those who have exhausted all other means of financial support. Every province and territory has its own social assistance program(s) and no two are the same. The basic structure of social assistance is much the same across the country, but each program has different administrative rules, eligibility criteria, benefit levels, and provisions concerning special types of assistance.

What is new in the 2021 report?

Social Assistance Summaries, 2021 now includes disaggregated social assistance data from all provinces and territories, notably: 

  • Cases and beneficiaries by household type: unattached singles, single parents, couples with children, and couples without children. 
  • Beneficiaries by gender or sex (depending on provincial or territorial nomenclature) with two categories: male and female. 

Please note that two jurisdictions provided incomplete data.  Disaggregated data for Prince Edward Island was only available for cases, and not beneficiaries. Nunavut provided limited household data for cases.  

In addition, Social Assistance Summaries, 2021 now includes analysis of social assistance beneficiaries as a proportion of the under-65 population for every jurisdiction. 

Who can claim social assistance?

Eligibility for social assistance is determined on the basis of a needs test. This test takes into account the household’s basic needs and its financial resources, which include both assets and income. The needs test assesses whether there is a shortfall between available financial resources and the legislated amounts for basic needs (i.e., food, shelter, clothing, household, and personal needs). Additional amounts may be paid on a discretionary basis for special needs based on each household’s circumstances.

Where does the data come from?

Every year provincial and territorial government officials provide us with an update of the social assistance case and recipient numbers (some jurisdictions also publish this information online). They can provide this data as a calendar year average, a fiscal year average, or as point-in-time data for March 31.

Data from before 2014 comes from two federal government reports: the Social Assistance Statistical Report: 2008 and the Social Assistance Statistical Report: 2009-13. When the federal data did not reconcile with provincial/territorial figures, the Caledon Institute of Social Policy worked with jurisdictional representatives to present data in the format most often used by their governments.

What is the difference between cases and beneficiaries?

Cases are equivalent to an individual or family: the person who applied for benefits, their partner, and any dependent children count as a single case.

Beneficiaries or recipients refer to the total number of people who benefit from a single social assistance claim, i.e., the individual claimant plus their partner, and any dependent children within their household.

How does each jurisdiction vary in its reporting?

Each jurisdiction uses its own methodology for tracking and reporting social assistance caseloads. For example, some provinces include households that receive a partial benefit or top-up from social assistance while others do not; some include First Nations living on reserve while others do not. They also vary in the way they calculate the number of social assistance cases and beneficiaries:

  • Three jurisdictions provide data for the situation on March 31: Alberta, Nova Scotia (prior to 2007), and Yukon.
  • Two jurisdictions provide an average over the calendar year: Newfoundland and Labrador, and Nunavut.
  • Nine jurisdictions provide an average over the fiscal year (April to March): British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, the Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia (2007-08 onwards), Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, and Saskatchewan.

Can I compare the data for different jurisdictions?

Comparisons between jurisdictions can be misleading because each jurisdiction has different eligibility criteria for social assistance and different methods for recording social assistance data. For example, the numbers will be lower for jurisdictions that count only households in receipt of full benefits.

The data is also affected by how federal programs interact with provincial/territorial benefits. For example, a higher take-up of related income security programs such as Employment Insurance typically reduces social assistance caseloads.

Why does the number of claims change from year to year?

There are two main reasons why the social assistance caseloads change from year to year. One reason is a change in the social and economic situation in an area. For example, a rise in unemployment is likely to result in a rise in social assistance claims. The other reason is a change in the way that social assistance programs operate. For example, people are ineligible for social assistance if their savings are above a certain threshold; if a jurisdiction increases this threshold, more people would be eligible and the number of claimants is likely to increase. Similarly, changes to eligibility for federal benefits can also have a knock-on effect on provincial/territorial caseloads.

Does the data include on-reserve First Nations claiming social assistance?

Not all jurisdictions include First Nations living on reserves in their social assistance data. For details, see the “data notes” under the statistics section for each province or territory.