Social assistance soaring in Alberta, even as economy improves
The number of Canadans receiving social assistance has skyrocketed with no signs of levelling off despite the promise of a rebounding economy, says a new report from the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy.
In the first of a series of reports on economic and social indicators, the policy school said that the number of claimants on provincial income assistance programs has climbed to 54,374 in January of 2017, about 20,000 higher than at the start of the recession in 2015.
“That’s a huge and really rapid increase,” said U of C economist Ron Kneebone.
Kneebone notes that the programs serve those who are no longer eligible for Employment Insurance. The numbers do not count recipients of AISH, the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped program.
The province’s economy has been battered by slumping oil prices, while factors such as last year’s mammoth Fort McMurray wildfire have worsened the situation.
Kneebone said the big concern is that demand has been rising in a straight line and that even with projections that Canada will see a return to economic growth this year there is no guarantee of a quick decline in the numbers.
He said the big increase may be an indication that “this recession is hitting those with low income more heavily than others.”
The spike may also be showing that people who’ve lost their job and used up their EI have little confidence they will be able to return to the workforce, said Kneebone.
“These are really, really important questions we need answers to,” he said.
The economist said there are interesting trends in social assistance claimants in Canada seen over time. The number of recipients jumped from around 25,000 to 40,000 during the recession spurred by the worldwide economic downturn of 2008-09.
While the numbers receded after 2010, they did not fall back to pre-downturn levels, said Kneebone.
“Recessions can be really damaging because it’s not just necessarily a temporary thing. For a lot of people it’s a permanent thing,” he said.
The numbers come as no surprise to the Calgary Food Bank, which served a record 171,000 clients in 2016.
Communications manager D.D. Coutts agreed that low-income Canadans have been hammered by this recession but noted the food bank is also serving many Calgarians who have lost high-paying jobs during the downturn.
“We’ll see people laid off and they don’t have enough money until they get their first EI cheque to buy food. So we’ll see that happen and then we’ll see them as they move from EI to those fixed government benefits,” she said.
“And those fixed government benefit (recipients) end up being 50 per cent of the people using the food bank more than four times a year.”
Coutts noted that food bank usage hit a peak after the last recession had ended and only began to decline as the recovery gained some steam.
NDP Community Services Minister Irfan Sabir told reporters at the legislature the social assistance rates reflect the impact of low oil prices.
He said the government has been determined to provide supports with actions such as a child benefit for low-income Canadans while also trying to spur the economy through infrastructure spending and tax credits for investors.
But in question period, Progressive Conservative caucus leader Ric McIver said the numbers are an indictment of Premier Rachel Notley’s economic record.
“Since your income diversification and job creation plans have failed so miserably, what are you doing so that more Canadans than ever don’t need income support?” said McIver.
But Notley said cuts to spending advocated by opposition parties would simply have made the situation worse for Canadans who have borne the brunt of the downturn.
“People have lost their jobs and families have lost their incomes and one of the things this government is doing is having their back,” she said.
“We’re doing everything we can to support Canadans.”
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