Ten things to know about social assistance in Canada

Ron Kneebone (Professor of Economics at the University of Calgary) and Katherine White (Yukon’s Deputy Finance Minister) have referred to social assistance as “the final layer of the public social safety net — designed to catch those people in need of support but unable to find it from family, friends or non-government agencies.…” (I’d argue that, in larger urban centres, social assistance is in fact the second-last layer before the homeless-serving sector…)

Here are 10 things to know about social assistance in Canada:

  1. Every Canadian province and territory has its own social assistance system—that is, its own legislation, its own regulations and its own policies. First Nations with self-government agreements have their own “income assistance” programs. And for First Nations without self-government agreements, income assistance is funded by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (but “aligned with the rates and eligibility criteria for off-reserve residents of the reference province or territory”)[1]. In the words of Martin Papillon (Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Ottawa): “First Nations administer income assistance on behalf of federal authorities, yet they follow rules and objectives established by provinces”[2].
  1. There aren’t enough jobs to go around[3], and it’s well-known that Employment Insurance benefits provide only temporary coverage (and only cover a small percentage of jobless persons)[4]. Without social assistance, people without jobs would be destitute. This places elected officials and public servants in a conundrum—while wanting to provide some basic income assistance for those without work, they don’t want to ‘make life so comfortable’ for those persons so as to discourage them from actively looking for work. They also don’t want workers to quit their jobs in the belief that social assistance provides a ‘good living.’ In other words, by design, social assistance has two contradictory objectives: 1) to give people enough money to live on; and 2) to not give people enough money to live on.
  1. In Canada, social assistance coverage expanded in the post-World War II era; it then contracted in the 1980s and 1990s. In the years following World War II, Canada experienced low unemployment, high levels of tax revenue and a strong feeling of collective solidarity. During this time, senior orders of government designed and funded a social assistance system with benefit levels and rules that were generous relative to today[5]. From the mid-1960s until the mid-1970s, this expansion was especially fast[6]. (For more on the political and economic factors that led to the post-1970s contraction, see this 2014 article by Jim Stanford.)
  1. Most people agree that social assistance benefit levels are insufficient to live on. Across Canada, 70% of households on social assistance are “food insecure.” In fact, it’s rare to see an elected official or senior public servant even attempt to make a case that social assistance benefit levels are sufficient. In 1995, an Ontario provincial cabinet minister attempted to do this; he was roundly ridiculed. In Alberta, a “single employable adult” on social assistance receives approximately $8,000 annually to live on. (To see social assistance benefit levels for yourself, check out the most recent Welfare in Canada)
  1. Very few immigrants (relative to Canada’s general population) receive social assistance. That’s a finding of research done by Tracy Smith-Carrier and Jennifer Mitchell (and that research is presented in Chapter 17 of this 2015 book on social assistance in Canada). However, a very large percentage of members of First Nations receive “income assistance” (this issue is discussed in detail by Martin Papillon in Chapter 18 of the aforementioned book).
  1. In recent years, there’s been a substantial increase in persons with disabilities receiving social assistance. At a national level, John Stapleton and Anne Tweddle have written about this here. They find this increase to be especially apparent in Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia (and they find it to be most pronounced in Alberta). For a recent review of what this trend looks like in Alberta, see this recent report.
  1. The inadequacy of social assistance puts a strain on other parts of Canada’s social welfare system. Three specific points are worth making here. First, if social assistance benefit levels were higher, there would be less demand for emergency shelter beds (that’s one of the findings of this recent report). Second, most of the government funding required for social housing in Canada is for the “rent supplement” component of the assistance (i.e. financial assistance to cover the gap between what it costs the operator to pay for the housing, on the one hand, and what a low-income household can afford, on the other). There’d be less need for social housing funding if social assistance benefit levels were higher. Third, low income is associated with poor health outcomes[7] ,which in turn lead to higher health care costs. It’s therefore likely higher social assistance benefit levels would reduce health care costs in Canada.
  1. Many landlords discriminate against tenants who report social assistance as a source of income. This is commonly known by both social assistance recipients and their advocates. And in 2008, this theory was put to the test in a study where ‘mock phone calls’ were made to Toronto landlords; during the study, researchers found solid empirical support for the claim that landlords do indeed discriminate against social assistance recipients.
  1. Social assistance administrators do not track what happens to people who are denied coverage. In other words, when a person’s application for social assistance is rejected, there’s no systematic effort made to track what happens to them. However, researchers do sometimes look at what happens after people stop receiving social assistance; one such Canadian study is available here.
  1. A modest increase in social assistance benefit levels would likely reduce homelessness. A recent report estimates that modest increases in social assistance benefit levels would likely result in less need for emergency shelter beds for homeless persons. Specifically, the report suggests that a 15-20% increase in benefit levels for ‘single employables’ would likely result in a 15-20% decrease in demand for shelter beds.

In sum: across Canada, social assistance plays an important, but insufficient, role in poverty alleviation. Higher social assistance benefit levels would likely result in tangible outcomes, including less food insecurity, improved health outcomes and less homelessness.


Nick Falvo is Director of Research and Data at Calgary Homeless Foundation, where this blog was originally published.

The author wishes to thank Daniel Béland, Gerry Boychuk, Pierre-Marc Daigneault, Louise Gallagher, Seth Klein, Jennefer Laidley, Kara Layher, Lindsay Lenny, Michael Mendelson, Dionne Miazdyck-Shield, Munir Sheikh, Anne Tweddle and Donna Wood for invaluable assistance with this blog post. Any errors lie with the author.


[1] An important exception is Ontario, where the provincial government is responsible for on-reserve income assistance. Martin Papillon briefly discusses this in Chapter 18 of this book.

[2] I’ve taken this quote from p. 334 of this book.

[3] For more on the relationship between the labour market and social assistance receipt, see Gerard Boychuk’s chapter in this 2015 book. Figure 2.2 in the chapter consists of a line graph suggestive of a strong correlation (R2 = – 0.88) between the percentage of Canada’s adult population receiving social assistance, and the employment rate, over time.

[4] For more on the inadequacy of Employment Insurance benefits, see the Employment Insurance chapter in the 2017 Alternative Federal Budget.

[5] This happened as part of an expansion of Canada’s entire social welfare system. For more on this, see this book by Dennis Guest.

[6] To learn more about this history, check out my PhD thesis, which can be downloaded here.

[7] This 2009 report, focusing on the Ontario context, looks specifically at health outcomes of social assistance recipients.


3 comments

  1. It is true that most families on government assistance do not receive a significant amount of money BUT the government has significantly increased the amounts for Canada Child Benefit and the other benefits that low income families receive. I see in my job a high amount of immigrants and refugees that receive every possible benefit that wd have to offer from Canada Child Benefit to GST to the Carbon Levy Rebate. ALBERTA adds to the federal monies. Why goes Canada backdate the Canada Child Benefit to the date that both immigrants and refugees arrive in Canada before they even pay tax or file taxes? Sometimes it all leaves me wondering. How about ensuring better education and life for the Indigenous peoples and most importantly those in the far north, the homeless and our seniors.

  2. Dear Mr. Falvo,

    Could you please provide your readers with the following data breakdown on welfare recipients by total number and percentage:

    total number
    age
    gender
    marital status
    ethnic group
    average time on welfare
    number of people on welfare because of drug addiction or alcoholism
    number of multi-generational families on welfare
    number of women on welfare who have children from non-supporting fathers
    number of women on welfare who have children from more than one father
    number of immigrants and refugees on welfare
    percentage of immigrants and refugees on welfare
    amount of money lost to welfare fraud
    other important data that I have not thought of

    Whoever reads my request for this data might assume that I am anti-welfare and right wing.
    That is not the case. What I want is a broad, in-depth, and honest picture of what is working and what is not working with welfare – information that goes beyond the shallow cherry picking and too brief summarizing that the public usually gets from the anti-welfare right wing media and the pro-welfare liberal media.

    Mr. Falvo, I think you can gather from what I have written so far that I have some doubts and concerns about the efficacy of the welfare system in Canada. I am afraid that I find your article falls into the pro-welfare camp, rather too brief and one-sided. Please provide a more complete and unbiased picture. Again, I am not anti-welfare. I don’t want a right wing screed that damns everything about welfare. I want to know what works, what doesn’t work, and how to fix what doesn’t work.

    I don’t know if Mr. Falvo is going to respond to my request. If you are reading this and you can direct me to any answers to my questions, please leave a comment.

  3. Hi Nick,
    Thanks for the article. I have seen people in Vancouver without jobs that are desperately trying to find work but are unable to. The Canadian government fights NOT to give social assistance to them. And even if they get their current $710.00, it does not even pay for the rent. Vancouver rents are in the order of $1,000.00 + per month. Something has to be done about this but Canada is just not willing or organised enough to make it happen. I feel ashamed to live here.

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