The Holes in Canada’s Safety Net: A Snapshot of Poverty and Social Assistance Before the 2020 Crisis

This report looks at the adequacy of provincial social assistance programs before the onset of the crisis caused by COVID-19 and collapsing oil prices. It sets the stage by reviewing trends in poverty and inequality between 1976 and 2017, with a special focus on the Maritime provinces and on IIndigenous peoples. It then analyzes general eligibility criteria, work and training requirements, and the adequacy of welfare incomes in the provinces. The story for non Indigenous Canadians is largely positive. Poverty has been reduced and inequality has not increased since 2000. National trends show that welfare dependency has fallen significantly between 1998 and 2018. It is less positive for Indigenous Canadians. Gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups have remained fairly constant. Other significant trends show an increase in the percentage of social assistance recipients reporting a disability, a growing proportion of single adults on welfare and a significant decrease in the number of families with children receiving social assistance. This report reviews relevant pilot projects, including the provision of a guaranteed annual income in Manitoba and Ontario. It also looks at provincial innovations to inform best practices for the provision of social assistance. Combining financial incentives with job-search services is most successful in helping recipients transition to the labour force. Providing benefits to all low-income individuals is one of the most effective ways to reduce poverty and improve welfare adequacy.