'Governments must improve social assistance programs in these tough times or we're going to see more families in Canada living in harsh, desperate circumstances.' - NUPGE president James Clancy.
Ottawa (31 March 2009) - Governments across the country must take immediate steps to increase social assistance rates to protect the health and living conditions of vulnerable families during the current economic recession, says the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), one of Canada's largest labour organizations.
"As the economic recession gets worse, more people are going to be turning to provincial social assistance programs and services for help," says James Clancy, NUPGE's National President.
"Yet in recent years most governments have made social assistance much harder to access and benefit rates are totally inadequate. Governments must improve social assistance programs in these tough times or we're going to see more families in Canada living in harsh, desperate circumstances."
More than 500,000 Canadians filed for Employment Insurance (EI) between January 2008 and January 2009. Meanwhile, unemployment stands at 7.7% and is expected to follow an upward trend throughout 2009.
Only 40% qualify for EI benefits
Only 40% of unemployed workers now qualify for EI benefits and, on average, they receive only 32 weeks of benefits. Some qualify for as few as 14 weeks. EI itself is not enough. This is where governments must step in and be there for the most vulnerable families in our society. EI must be improved to ensure a strong social safety net.
EI, for those who are eligible, is likely to provide only a temporary cushion. It is not enough to deal with the reality facing those in need — as evidenced by rising bankruptcy figures. In the past 12 months the number of Canadians filing for bankruptcy has risen by 15.8%.
Workers unlucky enough to have been laid off last April will soon be collecting their last EI cheque. What then? Finding a new pay cheque after exhausting EI is often an impossible task in an economy that is still shedding jobs. In many cases the only place left to turn is social assistance.
This past December The National Council on Welfare  (NCW) released a report of Welfare Incomes, 2006 and 2007.
The faces behind the numbers
In reading the table below, the faces of the women, men and children forced to subsist on such impossibly low rates of assistance should be kept clearly in mind.
|Single Employable Adult Income Assistance|
|Province||2007 $/year||2007 $/month|
|Prince Edward Island||$6,577||$548|
|Couple with two children Income Assistance|
|Province||2007 $/year||2007 $/month|
|Prince Edward Island||$22,906||$1,909|
New Brunswick holds, as it has for more than two decades now, the shameful position of rock bottom on this depressing list. The province's support for the most vulnerable families within its borders is dismal.
Can't afford basics
"Rates across the country, but especially those in New Brunswick, are unconscionably low," says Clancy.
"They've fallen behind the rate of inflation and dropped well below the poverty line, making it impossible for many desperate families to afford even basic needs like shelter, clothing and food. Yet sadly these are exactly the choices that more and more families are going to be forced to make unless governments raise the rates and change the qualifying rules."
Clancy says governments must recognize that providing more support for vulnerable families is not only the right thing to do but a wise investment.
"Strengthening the incomes of these families will stimulate the economy through more spending in the short term. In the long term it will also help reduce poverty and provide social and economic returns for years to come," he argues.
Rob Rainer, executive director of Canada Without Poverty (formally the National Anti-Poverty Organization), says existing welfare rates across Canada are so low they entrench recipients in a state of permanent poverty.
“These rates thus contradict Canada’s obligation to provide social security and a decent standard of living, per international human rights treaties to which our nation is a signatory," he argues.
Beyond income assistance, there are a host of community-based social services that families need to survive tough times — shelters, drop-in centres, meal programs, food banks and outreach workers. These services rely on federal funding through the Canada Social Transfer (CST).
NUPGE believes that the federal government must increase transfers for community-based social services as well as social assistance rates to protect the growing number of those that need support.
The economic crisis is being borne by workers and their families, not just corporations. Therefore, governments must provide solutions that help all citizens rather than concentrating on the business elites who created the mess in the first place. It's not only the right thing to do — it's the smart thing to do.
The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE
The Underfunding and Accountability Crisis in Canada's Community-based Social Service Sector - download PDF