Welfare in Canada

About social assistance

This section outlines how provincial and territorial jurisdictions in Canada determine if an individual or family is eligible for social assistance. Households in receipt of social assistance are also eligible for other payments (such as tax credits and child benefits), which together form the household’s total welfare income.

Last updated: November 2020

This resource is not intended to help individuals identify what government transfers they could receive. Individuals seeking advice on their eligibility for welfare or financial assistance should contact their local social assistance provider (their province, territory or municipality).

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.

Who is eligible for social assistance?

Each province and territory has its own social assistance program(s), so no two are the same. Each program has different administrative rules, eligibility criteria, benefit levels, and provisions concerning special types of assistance. However, even though the specifics vary, the basic structure of social assistance is much the same across the country.

In every jurisdiction, eligibility for social assistance is determined on the basis of a needs test, which takes into account a household’s financial assets and income.

Asset limits

In order to qualify and continue to be eligible for social assistance, a household’s assets must fall below certain limits set by each province and territory. These limits can vary by household size, and some jurisdictions set different limits for those applying for social assistance compared to those already receiving it.

Asset tests tend to only consider a household’s liquid assets such as cash on hand and in a bank account, as well as stocks, bonds, and securities that can be readily converted to cash. Fixed assets such as primary residence, primary vehicle, personal effects, and items needed for employment are typically exempt (within reason) from the asset test.

Appendix 1 shows the liquid asset exemption levels in effect in each jurisdiction as of January 2019 and details of the changes that occurred during the year.

Income limits

Once a household has met the asset test, an income test is applied to determine eligibility for social assistance. Certain aspects of a household’s income are not taken into account when determining the amount of social assistance. For example, the Canada Child Benefit, child welfare payments, and federal and provincial/territorial tax credits are all considered exempt income, but Employment Insurance benefits and Workers’ Compensation payments typically are not. For every dollar of non-exempt income a household has, social assistance payments are typically reduced by a dollar.

Some earnings from employment are also exempt from the income test. This allows people receiving social assistance to earn a certain amount of money without impacting their benefits. Each social assistance program has its own way of calculating earnings exemptions, but there are generally three approaches:

  1. A flat-rate amount permits a recipient to earn a certain amount after which social assistance benefits are reduced dollar for dollar;
  2. A percentage of earnings approach means that social assistance benefits are reduced by a certain percentage. For example, a 25 per cent exemption means that social assistance benefits are reduced by 75 cents for every dollar earned; or
  3. A combination of flat-rate and percentage means that once the flat-rate amount is exceeded, benefits are reduced by a percentage amount.

Appendix 2 shows the earnings exemption approach in effect in each jurisdiction as of January 2019, and details of the changes that occurred during the year.