Ten things to know about social assistance in Alberta

This is part two of a two-part blog series on social assistance. Part one, which looks at social assistance across Canada, can be accessed here.

As recently noted by my colleague Rachel Campbell, last fall’s Point-in-Time (PiT) Count of persons experiencing homelessness across Alberta yielded interesting findings pertaining to social assistance. The report found that a mere 7% of persons experiencing homelessness in Calgary indicated that “welfare/income assistance” was one of their sources of income; across the rest of Alberta, meanwhile, the average was 29%.

On April 20, Calgary Homeless Foundation convened a community panel discussion in the hope of uncovering potential reasons for this discrepancy. Panel members were Andrew Joo (Calgary Drop-In), Simon Lai (Woods Homes) and Ellie Hall (Calgary Legal Guidance).[1]

Here are 10 things to know:

1. It’s always been challenging for households to qualify for—and maintain—social assistance in Alberta. Major reasons for this include: governments wanting to spend less money, policy makers fearing that social assistance receipt will make gainful employment less attractive, and elected officials (and their constituents) believing that unemployed persons have themselves to blame for their misfortune. (None of these points are limited to Alberta; all of this was discussed in Part 1 of the present blog series.)

2. In 1986, the Edmonton Social Planning Council published a controversial document. The Other Welfare Manual was an advocacy document that helped low-income individuals (and their advocates) navigate Alberta’s social assistance system. It was updated multiple times and soon became controversial, in part because it made it more challenging for social assistance officials to deny benefits to households. Intake workers were told by their supervisors that they could refuse to see clients who wanted to bring the manual into the intake interview.

3. In the 1990s, rules for social assistance receipt in Alberta became harsher and benefit levels were reduced. Social assistance administrators began to put an intense focus on ensuring recipients looked for gainful employment. It subsequently became more difficult for people to be deemed eligible for social assistance. As I’ve written before: “a ‘single employable adult’ without dependents received almost $9,000 annually in 1992 (that figure includes tax credits); by 2007, this figure had shrunk to less than $6,000.”[2]

4. Since that time, it’s been even more difficult for people to access social assistance throughout the province. For example, previously mothers were not considered “employable” until their youngest child was in school. This policy changed to a policy stipulating that mothers should look for work as soon as their youngest child turned two. According to Ellie Hall (Calgary Legal Guidance): “Until recently [when Alberta Works was in the news for forcing clients to stand in the cold waiting in line for an appointment with an intake worker] clients could not schedule an intake appointment. They could only start lining up outside the office, sometimes for hours, and were still often turned away and told to come back another day and start over” (personal communication, May 2, 2017).

5. Across Alberta municipalities, it’s possible that there are discrepancies in the way social assistance offices interpret rules and administer benefits. Clients and front-line workers often report that rules are not always interpreted consistently across offices. It may be that some Calgary offices are stricter in dealing with persons experiencing homelessness than are offices in other Alberta cities (such inter-office variability may also exist in Canada’s other provinces and territories).

6. In Alberta, persons experiencing homelessness are not eligible to receive certain forms of social assistance. They can qualify for Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH), but not for Alberta Works; the former is for persons with permanent, severe disabilities, while the latter is not (yet, both are forms of social assistance). At one time, individuals living in a homeless shelter could access some Alberta Works benefits money each month; but today, they receive nothing directly from Alberta Works until they find a permanent address (however, the services provided to them by the shelter likely benefit from some provincial funding). This is not the case in all provinces. For example, Quebec lets clients in homeless shelters access the equivalent of Alberta Works.

7. Earlier this year, the Alberta government streamlined the AISH application process. More information on these changes can be found here (and a CBC News story can be found here). This move happened in response to criticism from the provincial auditor general. However, it’s not yet clear how much of an impact this will have in practice or how it will impact people experiencing homelessness. It’s also important to note that AISH benefit levels are higher than comparable programs in other provinces; see point #8 of this previous post.

8. Even though the cost of rental housing is substantially higher in Calgary than in other Alberta municipalities, social assistance benefit levels are the same across the entire province. One possible reason for this is that the cost of rent should not be the only variable used to assess cost of living—other important variables include the cost of transportation, food and fuel (and in some Alberta communities, those costs may be greater than in Calgary).[3] In other provinces and territories, benefit levels do vary by jurisdiction, in part to reflect the higher cost of living in more remote areas of that province or territory. This is the case in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and all three territories.[4] In this recent presentation, Ron Kneebone and Margarita Wilkins argue that social assistance benefits levels in Alberta should vary by municipality.

9. When it comes to the percentage of each city’s homeless population receiving social assistance, one factor that may help explain the discrepancy between Calgary and the rest of Alberta may be labour market attachment. As Rachel Campbell noted in her recent blog post, results of last fall’s PiT Count found a discrepancy between Calgary and the rest of Alberta in terms of individuals experiencing homelessness indicating “employment” as a source of income. In Calgary, 33% of respondents indicated “employment” as a source of income, compared with fewer than 10% in the rest of the province. Since it’s harder for persons who are gainfully employed to receive social assistance, it would be logical if this explains much of the discrepancy between rates of social assistance receipt among persons experiencing homelessness in Calgary versus other Alberta cities.

10. Today, the Alberta government is under considerable political pressure to control spending. For 2017-18, the provincial government is forecasting a $10.3 billion deficit. And for 2018-19, its target is a $9.7 billion deficit. At the same time, the job vacancy picture looks bleak, and social assistance caseloads are rising (you can read about this here and here).

In Sum. The question asked at the outset of this two-part blog series was: “Why do a smaller percentage of persons experiencing homelessness in Calgary receive social assistance than their counterparts in other Alberta cities?” I offer three possible answers to this question: 1) It’s always been difficult for anyone to access social assistance in Alberta, as is the case in every Canadian province and territory; 2) higher rates of employment among people experiencing homelessness in Calgary may explain why a smaller percentage of Calgary’s homeless population accesses social assistance; and 3) variations in how staff from one office to another interpret social assistance eligibility rules may also help explain the discrepancy between Calgary and other cities.

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

The author wishes to thank the following individuals for invaluable assistance with this blog post:  Rachel Campbell, Hilary Chapple, Louise Gallagher, Ellie Hall, Coleen Hutton, Andrew Joo, Nigel Kirk, Kara Layher, Lindsay Lenny, John Stapleton, Anne Tweddle, Donna Wood and one anonymous reviewer. Any errors lie with the author.

[1] Multiple attempts were made—via official channels—to have a Government of Alberta official also participate on the panel. Regrettably, none of those attempts proved fruitful.

[2] All of these figures are expressed in 2015 constant dollars.

[3] For a succinct overview of a recent attempt to calculate the cost-of-living variation across Alberta communities, see this report; and for more detail, see this web link.

[4] In the words of my colleague, John Stapleton: “I don’t think any jurisdiction has a good rationale for its rates. They are historical rather than rational and reflect a massive elixir of compounds that seldom make sense. Every so often, a province or territory will compare and set rates according to some external standard like the consumer price index or cost of items. It seldom lasts long” (personal communication, April 30, 2017).

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