By: Meaghan Fallak – Winnipeg
September 1, 2020
The global COVID-19 pandemic has changed life as we know it. In mid-March there was an urgent need for income assistance when entire industries began to shutdown en masse due to the risk of transmission. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) is the program designed by the Government of Canada to provide support to Canadians whose incomes were affected by the pandemic.
This CERB program has quickly become Canada’s largest income assistance program. As of mid-July over 8 million Canadians have applied for the CERB, with over $60 billion paid out. The design of the program is simple, all eligible Canadians can apply for a deposit of $2000 for a four-week period that they are unable to work or working reduced hours, up to $1000 of income for the four-week period. Due to the large numbers of Canadians who needed assistance the process was based on ease of access.
All the program requires to issue the payments is a self-declaration that you are eligible for the program based on the criteria provided by the Government of Canada. Although this program has helped many Canadians through the pandemic, the aftermath of this program will certainly cause the CERB to do more harm than good for many Canadians and the barriers to access have left behind significant portions of the Canadian population. These include many of the most vulnerable groups such as long-term unemployed workers, workers in dangerous working situations, cash-based workers, and those receiving income assistance who were not eligible to top up their payments which range from $650-$950 monthly.
Why should some Canadians be forced to live on $650 a month while the government sets an income floor at $2000 per four-week period? Why should workers be forced to stay in jobs they feel put them at risk? Why does this program’s design serve to perpetuate structural inequalities that our government has sworn to be working to correct? I will explore these questions below.
Who is eligible to receive the CERB?
This is where things get more complicated. To be eligible for the program you must be a resident of Canada, 15 years of age or older, your employment must have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, you must have made over $5000 in 2019 or the 12 months leading up to your application, and you must not have quit your job voluntarily. The eligibility criteria have changed several times since the CERB was launched on April 6th, in large part due to pressure from advocates who noticed large portions of the population being left behind. However, the changing nature of the eligibility requirements makes applying for the benefit confusing and risky for some Canadians. In some cases, individuals may have been eligible on one day and ineligible on the next day or vice versa. This makes things extremely complicated for Canadians who are trying to navigate this system, especially since the government has put forth legislation to penalize those who received the CERB but were “ineligible” to do so.
Who is left behind by the CERB?
By design the CERB has left behind many Canadians. In fact, the CERB did not have a universal effect at all. Prior to the shutdowns of March 2020 there were 1.2 million Canadians looking for work. Based on the design of the CERB many of those individuals would not be eligible for the payments. In addition, undocumented and cash-based workers would not be eligible to apply. The burden of proof in this case falls on the employee, rather than the employer and in most cases despite their best efforts these employees are unable to get the documentation they need to support their claims. Other groups that were excluded were seasonal workers, temporary residents, new labour market entrants who made less than $5000 in earnings, long-term unemployed workers, unemployed workers on EI, unemployed workers whose EI claims expired prior to January 1, 2020, and owner-operators. As you can see these groups are among the most precarious workers and vulnerable populations in Canada. This structural exclusion will have the effect of pushing many Canadians even further into the cycle of poverty.
The design of this program also leaves behind essential services workers who want to leave their jobs. Requiring workers to not leave their jobs voluntarily encourages workers who want to leave their jobs due to unsafe working conditions to stay in dangerous positions, risking their own health and safety and in many cases the health and safety of others. During this pandemic the health of one is the health of all. We are all interconnected in the pursuit of reducing transmission and keeping our population safe. Inadequate and discriminatory eligibility criteria cause some individuals and groups to be forced to make decisions not solely based on their own health and safety, but in order to make the income they need to survive. There are very real implications for those who were left behind by the government during this time.
What happens to those who were deemed “ineligible” to receive the benefit?
A core group of Canadians who will be affected in the aftermath of the CERB are those Canadians on income assistance who also received the CERB due to the initial confusion and changes in eligibility, or simply for survival. Provincial and territorial income assistance payments range from about $650.00 to $950.00 per month. These payments are so low that individuals can barely afford to rent an apartment, much less afford all of their necessities. Income assistance recipients often rely on community resources such as food and clothing banks in order to survive. During the pandemic many of these services were closed due to a lack of resources or the increased risk of transmission. To add to this the rise in housing prices and consumer goods made things even more difficult for these Canadians.
Little to no additional support was offered to those who received income assistance prior to the pandemic. It is easy to see why many of these individuals would turn to the additional support that the CERB would offer them. However, many individuals and families are already having money clawed back by the provinces and territories that they live in. Some provinces such as Newfoundland and Labrador are clawing back 100% of the benefit, others such as Manitoba are closing the income assistance files of those who received the CERB, as it is being treated as income. Only one province and two territories are allowing income assistance recipients to top-up with the CERB.
Bill C-17: Government of Canada’s Plan to Punish Those Who Received CERB without Qualifying:
Bill C-17 went into its first reading on June 10, 2020. This bill proposed fines and even jail time for those who are perceived to have received CERB money fraudulently. There is even a tip-line where individuals can report people they suspect to be receiving the money fraudulently. The harsh messaging set forth in the bill has served as a scare tactic, deterring even those who are eligible for the CERB from accessing this support due to the fear of being penalized. Anti-poverty advocates are calling on the government to give amnesty to those on income assistance who received the CERB.
A key concern is these individuals being pushed even further into poverty, if they can afford to pay it back at all. Some Canadians may even end up homeless if they are required to pay back the CERB in full. The Government of Canada has not been clear about how they intend to enforce the paybacks but advocates fear that if it is done through tax returns this will eliminate an important income supplement for those living below the poverty line. Perceiving this as fraud is taking the wrong approach to dealing with vulnerable populations. Many people who were ineligible to receive the CERB either did not know that or were just trying to survive. Penalizing the most vulnerable sends the wrong message to Canadians. The likely result of this will be more economic hardship because keeping people in poverty is expensive for all levels of government.
What happens now that the CERB is ending?
The Government of Canada has designed an improved Employment Insurance (EI) system to replace the current CERB which will end on September 26th. The improved EI system has a few key improvements: reduced hours required to access, minimum of 26 weeks eligibility, and a minimum of $400 per week paid to recipients.
The Government of Canada has once again set a floor on what an acceptable income should look like for Canadians. This floor, whether $2000 for a four-week period, or $1600 for a four-week period is more than double what the average income assistance recipient receives per month. This is a clear message that income assistance programs need to be reassessed and, in many cases, completely redesigned.
What Effects Will This Have Long-Term?
If a rights-based approach is not taken to pandemic recovery, there will be many negative consequences. Economically it makes sense to support vulnerable populations to get out of poverty. However, our current income assistance programs are falling short. Our social systems often cause individuals to dig holes that they cannot climb out of. The CERB and other pandemic recovery measures are only serving to perpetuate structural inequalities that plague our institutions. If this continues the poor will be pushed further into cycles of poverty.
In her letter to the Prime Minister, MP Leah Gazan states that we are seeing a rapidly increasing number of individuals and families that are experiencing homelessness for the first time. This is troubling because the government should not only be helping certain portions of the population. If the full payback of the CERB and penalties is enforced, some individuals may have to pay back debts incurred from the CERB into old age. This is not in line with the spirit of the CERB program. Why should some Canadians be forced to live on as little as $650 per month while the Government of Canada sets an income floor of double that during the pandemic?
Reducing systemic barriers and providing greater access to government funding have clearly been shown to reduce poverty levels, particularly for marginalized communities. However, the Government of Canada has failed to take this approach with the most vulnerable citizens in its pandemic response measures. Recipients of income assistance, cash-based workers, students, temporary residents, and other vulnerable groups have been forced to adapt to the changing conditions of the pandemic while surviving on chronically inadequate incomes. This pandemic has shed light on the structural inequalities in our institutions. We must consider the most vulnerable populations who have experienced more hardship before and during this pandemic and have to contend with the increasing uncertainty of their futures. As Canadians we have a moral responsibility to speak up about what we have seen, and we must share our voices with those whose voices are drowned out and silenced by our government’s actions.