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.


19 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.

    1. hi my name is chalaura i just moved to New Brunswick from ontairo where i was on ODSP assistance and here they will not let me on disability so i had to go on welfar with 2 kids and as of july me and my kids could not have a home cuase of welfar only going to give us 385.50 $ to live with how do they think i can keep a home,feed and put cloths on them that is just a start of what they do to the people here its not just me their are so many people here that dont even have a home or food i came here cuase i have a disability and can not work so i have family here to help me but they can not give me and my kids a home and feed them for me. so i will need the help of people here and every where to speak up and say to the goverment that they cant do this do us and yes how people from outside canada get everything and we get shit. im going to try and help the poeple here and speak up and take a stand.

      1. I am being refused welfare because I was only given 575.00 & my family was helping out with the rest to make ends meet but now they think my family should be paying 2 support me 100%. & they cannot afford to support 2 households.I am unsure as to where to turn.
        They want my families full bank statements & they do not think that they should have to..Are they legally allowed to demand there personal information

        1. You don’t say what province you live in. Each one has different policies, which, in my opinion, should not be allowed. Income assistance rules, etc. should be standardized across the country, the only differences being the actual dollar amounts because of the differences in the cost of living and rent in each province. In Nova Scotia, there is no requirement for one’s family to support you, thereby making you ineligible for assistance. You have to be very savvy. Never disclose anything about your family or friends. Never tell them you have a romantic partner. As far as they are concerned, you should appear to be utterly isolated and without any resources, monetary or social, whatsoever. The job of a caseworker is to allot you the least amount of money, preferably denying you altogether. Income assistance programs are not meant to help you live, they are to provide the smallest amount of money to avoid you actually starving to death, such as would happen in a third world country.

          By the way, I have only one living relative left and he is a millionaire. He despises me and lives in comfort while I go hungry on assistance for reasons of severe and permanent medical/physical problems. If they went after him to support me, the government would have a war on their hands.

    2. The majority of people on income assistance are single, childless adults with medical issues and physical disabilities, therefore increases in amounts for those with children, benefits for immigrants and refugees, job training programs, education support, etc., help only a small amount of recipients. Those who are in most need of a very substantial increase so they can eat properly and better cope with their health problems receive the least amount of attention by the government or society in general. The public needs to be educated about who really is on assistance to get rid of the harmful prejudice against those who receive welfare.

    3. My husband and I are both disabled. I recieved 750 a month but my husband does not have a doctor so cannot get disability. We applied for assistance and he gets $450. So we like many others get $1.100 a month. We struggle every month. Lucky for my daughter who helps us we she can but now we have to pay our own power. We are both stressed . My husband was a nurse in Scotland. I was a graphic artist. We made good money and I would rather work then be living in poverty . I never thought we would be living like this at 58 . They really need to do something. Find a way to give more. It would be good not to be stressed every month.

    4. It’s not hard to live on social assistance, it’s impossible. The shelter portion for rent is at the very most $375 a month, you cannot find anything most anywhere for that. In fact most rentals are equal to or more that a person’s total assistance check. Subsidied housing has huge wait times and lists. The way that the system is set up it traps you once your on it all other options start closing over.

      If your on assistance in BC you cannot get any other rental assistance it’s a one trick pony most Canadians on assistance get $12,000 a year last time I checked that’s half as much as the poverty line in Canada.

      It’s similar with pensions for seniors, I read somewhere that Canadians treat their poor worse than most places the culture of your just too lazy to work.

  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.

    1. The purpose of this article was to mention some things that most people are not aware of concerning income assistance in Canada. Most people don’t give it a second thought and if they do, it’s to spew vitriol for its recipients due to extreme ignorance about who is on assistance and why. The assumption is they are all lazy bums when in fact, less than 2% of recipients “cheat”. The requirements for eligibility are so strict and the government goes to such great lengths to avoid granting anyone assistance in the first place, that it is virtually impossible to con the system. For example, if you are looking for work, you have to prove you are. No proof, no cheque. If you are too sick to work, a doctor has to fill out a medical form. No doctor agreeing that you’re too sick to work, no cheque. The amount of money received is so minuscule, that the entire cheque does not cover the cost of a bachelor apartment in Halifax. $850 for a person with a disability vs $900 and up for a bachelor, $1150+ for a one bedroom.

      If the article did address everything on your list, it would be several pages long. In my province, Nova Scotia, there are about 25,000 people on assistance. At least 70% of them are single, childless adults, who are permanently unemployable due to medical issues. Others are on it temporarily because of medical reasons, for example, kidney dialysis, accident injuries, etc. The rest are single mothers who struggle to work and/or engage in post-secondary studies, or job training, because they can’t afford child care; and those who are unable to work due to addiction issues. The smallest percentage are people who are healthy but currently unable to find gainful employment. Ironically, it is this smallest group for whom income assistance is intended. That is why the amount we receive is such a shockingly small amount. It is meant to be enough to cover rent on a small room at a rooming house with little or no money left over for food and other expenses. The job seeker is expected to go to soup kitchens and food banks to get by until they get a job. They don’t even get $40 for a phone, making it difficult to find a job. And no $130/month for Internet either.

    2. I am a single mom in ontario receiving no child support from the father because he hides either on welfare and/or disability. We separated in 2009 and been divorced since 2011. He promised me I would get nothing from him for child support. He is now $40k in arrears and the Family Responsibility Office can’t go after him because he is protected from either welfare or disability under section 7 of the family responsibility act. How can ontario works not see a pattern that he has deliberately been avoiding his obligations after all these years and how can the system prevent this from happening?

  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.

  4. Hi
    Mr Nick Falvo,
    Do you have any information about the approximate amount of monthly financial assistance each Canadian province gives to individuals with severe employment constraints? My stepmom’s best friend’s son is on permanent last resort income in Quebec and he receives $1035 canadian dollars per month (i know, it’s not enough and it is really beyond disappointing and sad).
    A Montreal Gazette article claimed there will be a 72 dollar increase every month to the monthly assistance of people with severe employment contraints here in quebec but my stepmom’s best friend’s son claimed to have only received an additional 26 dollars (he received 1061 canadian dollars 🙁 today January 1, 2019). Weird eh? I mean where did the 46 additional dollars go? This quebec link might help your readers;

    https://montrealgazette.com/news/quebec/quebec-increases-social-assistance-benefits-for-some?utm_term=Autofeed&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Facebook#Echobox=1544669120

  5. The above arguments are based on logos (and pathos but that’s my personal opinion). My stance is from ethos – I’ve lived on the street. I would strongly urge caution when approaching information on this topic. George Orwell in 1984 said, “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

  6. I know many people of immigrants parents , who take social assistance From Canada Govt. After Receiving social assistance they enjoy Canadian tax payers money in other countries. Is any way Govt. Can stop tax payer hard earn money to be used in good roads, cheap medicines etc.if a person who is on social assistance does not visit hospital or clinic he is use canadian tax payer money in their country.

  7. I know of a couple on their second child who is receiving assistance..mothers allowance what ever you want to call it.
    What kind of a future is there going to be for children being raised in homes with jobless parents who are too lazy to get a job.(as he was working before ) I feel they should not be bringing children into the world unless they can provide a decent living for them. Having more children who you know will never get anywhere …they are welfare people having future welfare children. I know its not much to live on..but the fact of the matter is…these people should not be having children..a bit more responsible.. I think you should have to be working and be able to give your children a proper home and education..not expect everyone else to pay for it or the children going hungry..

    1. The vast majority of income assistance recipients have medical and physical issues that prevent them from working. Others have addictions, which is a medical issue as well. Therefore, they cannot possibly be labelled lazy.

      “too lazy to get a job” I don’t know where these stereotypes about those who are on income assistance came from but they only make the lives of those suffering in extreme poverty even worse. The eligibility requirements to get on assistance are extremely strict. If a person is deemed able to work, they must submit job search attempts and this is checked on. If they are not looking for a job, they don’t get their next month’s cheque.

      Did it not occur to you that some couples had their children before their life circumstances took a bad turn? No parent can guarantee they will never end up on welfare. It could happen to you. The same can be said for the millions of parents who, along with their many children, are starving in a third world country right now. Moreover, the amount allotted for each child is a fraction of what it actually costs to take care of a child. The completely innocent children then suffer from extreme poverty. This is incredibly cruel of the government to do this and maligning the parents is not helpful.

  8. It’s interesting that higher social assistance benefits can reduce health care costs in Canada. My brother is moving to Canada next month and is curious about how the country deals with government assistance. I’ll be sure to pass this along to him so he can know more about the government he’s moving to.

  9. I wish you had put more emphasis on the fact that the majority of those on income assistance are unable to work due to medical and/or physical issues. If this fact was generally known, it would go a long way to gaining more public support for a substantial increase to rates. Currently, politicians have no will to do this because the public is very hateful towards “welfare bums”. Until that myth is dispelled, those of us who are already sick will get sicker and cost the government millions in added health care costs that could be avoided by an increase in our cheques.

    And there is only emergency dental coverage: only if in pain. Those on it for life, have to let their teeth rot, literally, which is a risk for infection, stroke, heart disease, dementia. Once you lose your teeth because of lack of funding for dental care, they pay only 80% of the cost of dentures.

    There are thousands of Nova Scotians like myself who are living their entire lives (30 years and counting for me) on a tiny amount that is meant to be temporary for those who are seeking employment. That is why we only get much sicker and develop new health problems directly related to severe malnourishment, extreme caloric restriction, and the unbearable stress of living in abject poverty for one’s entire life. This greatly increases health care costs as we get cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc. If the government gave me enough money to eat a healthy diet and would pay for a new wheelchair (my 20 year old chair is making my health worse), my quality of life would greatly increase along with my life expectancy, and I would be burdening the health care system far less.

    I eat less than 1000 calories a day and rarely eat fresh produce, poultry, or meat. I eat whole grain pasta and bread, lentils, potatoes, some frozen veggies, and eggs. I am hungry all the time, weak, dizzy, nauseated, migraines, muscle twitches, and other symptoms of starvation. Most of my medical problems are caused by poor diet and would be solved by a healthy diet. I would need another $300 added to my cheque just to follow the Canada Food Guide. I only had ONE health problem when I first went on assistance. Within a year of extreme poverty, poor diet and stress caused several new problems, all of which are worse than the original problem and I am going to die soon because of them. I don’t expect to live more than a few more years. Cause of Death: extreme poverty sanctioned by the Province of Nova Scotia. Lack of food is only one of many consequences of poverty that makes my life utterly miserable and hopeless. It is not enough just to survive.

  10. Hello 👋
    I’ve got a question on out of province opportunities. A close friend who is also legally disabled is considering hiring me to work on his farm 4-6 months out of the year. I’m on CPPD and social assistance. What is my best route to complete this. As this isn’t a regular job to search for in B.C. and the family is attentive and understanding to my circumstances.

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