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. Individuals and families who receive basic social assistance benefits will also be eligible for financial support through refundable tax credits, child benefits for households with children, and, where applicable, additional social assistance payments. Together these form the total welfare income of a household.

Last updated: December 2021

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 test

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 or 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. All jurisdictions also exempt the value of Registered Education Savings Plans (RESPs) and Registered Disability Savings Plans (RDSPs), and several have some exemptions for Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSPs).

The table in Appendix 1 shows the liquid asset exemption levels in effect as of January 2020 and details of the changes that occurred during the year.

Earning exemptions

Income tests in all jurisdictions allow for the exemption of some earnings from employment. 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:

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

In most cases, earnings exemptions are based on monthly earnings (for example, a household could earn $200 each month before their benefits are reduced) and therefore benefit amounts and eligibility are calculated monthly. A minority of social assistance programs calculate exemptions based on annual earnings.

The table in Appendix 2 shows the earnings exemption levels in effect as of January 1, 2020 and details of the changes that occurred during the year.

Note that the federal government created several important income replacement benefits in 2020 to support workers who lost employment because of the pandemic, the most prominent of which being the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB). While many provinces and territories exempted these benefits as income in full or in part, these exemptions are not included here. Our methodology assumes that none of our four household types were eligible for the CERB since they would have lost employment prior to the pandemic, and that they did not qualify for the CRB as they had no employment income.