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Did the UCP use the pandemic to cut income support funding?

Alberta is spending hundreds of millions of dollars less on income support than originally budgeted. And that all changed with the pandemic.

The Alberta Government recently updated caseload data for the Income Support programme run by the Community and Social Services ministry. The data runs from April 2005 to April 2022.

The Income Support programme provides financial benefits to individuals and families who don’t have the resources to meet their basic needs, like food, clothing and shelter.

Clients are split into two groups: those who are expected to work (ETW) and those who have barriers to full employment (BFE).

The caseload itself measures the number of households categorized as ETW or BFE during a specific reporting period. It includes a mixture of single individuals, lone-parent families, couples with children, and couples without children.

In April 2022, the total caseload for the Income Support program was 46,928. That was down from 47,452 the previous month but up from 43,027 in April 2021.

Let’s breakdown the number by client category:

Apr
2021
Mar
2022
Apr
2022
1 mon.
change
1 year
change
ETW – Working 1,3402,0912,083-8743
ETW – Not working, available14,78716,95716,468-4891,681
ETW – Not working, unavailable7,2839,5249,446-782,163
BFE19,61718,88018,93151-686

Between March and April, numbers decreased for income support recipients who the government expects to work, yet they all increased when comparing this past April to the previous April.

Those recipients who experience barriers to employment were the opposite, increasing over the 1-month period while decreasing over a year.

Here’s how the caseload looks between April 2019 and April 2022, pretty much the entire time the United Conservative Party has been in power.

Here we see a huge drop beginning in May 2020 and continuing until September 2020, before becoming a slow decline for another 12 months.

In fact, between April 2020 and September 2021, total caseload numbers dropped by over 14,000 households, from 61,141 to 46,928.

According to the report, this huge drop was the result of pandemic benefits paid out by the federal government, specifically CERB, or the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

Although that’s kind of weird, given that CERB ended in September 2020. But maybe they’re referring to the Canada Recovery Benefit, which was basically half of what people received under the CERB.

Even then, it wasn’t the federal pandemic programmes that caused the reduction in caseloads. It was the provincial government’s decision to cut over 14,000 people from the provincial programme because they were getting the federal benefit.

Consider this.

In the 2020–2021 provincial budget, released a month before COVID-19 public health protections were implemented in Alberta, the UCP government had budgeted spending $936 million on employment and income support.

Now, keep in mind, that the year before, they had spent just barely over $1 billion.

However, what the government ended up spending on employment and income supports during the first year of the pandemic was $759 million.

They cut employment and income support during the first year of the pandemic by $177 million. That was 18.91% of what they had budgeted.

And while the numbers for the following year won’t be finalized until August, their forecasted spending for employment and income supports during the second year of the pandemic was $747 million.

That’s not only less than their originally 2020–2021 projection, it’s also less than what they ended up spending in 2020–2021. And that’s after CERB and CRB were gone.

(To be fair, CRB was around for about half of that budget year.)

It gets worse though.

While the UCP government has budgeted $813 million this year for employment and income supports, they’re budgeting only $762 million and $763 million in the next two budget years.

Both of those are still more than $170 million lower than the original 2020–2021 budget forecast.

And there are functionally no federal pandemic support programmes left. (I mean, there technically are, but they’re super restrictive and very few people qualify for them.)

It seems to me that the provincial government used the pandemic as an opportunity to drastically cut employment and income supports.

Take a look at this graph, which shows income support under the NDP and the UCP.

Income Support caseload numbers increased sharply for the first couple of years under the NDP, then the increased mellowed out a bit. That slower increase continued during the UCP’s first year, until the bottoming out I mentioned earlier.

Now, you might be thinking, “Yeah, but that’s a good thing. More people are working now, so there would be fewer people on income support.”

Well, here’s another chart for you.

This caseload charts tracks only those households which fell under the barriers to full employment category.

Unlike the total numbers, BFE numbers are still dropping, even months after the federal pandemic support programmes were removed. They haven’t seen a rise at all.

Not only that, but they’ve been dropping the entire time the UCP have been in power.

Remember, according to the Income and Employment Supports Policy Manual, households classified as Barriers to Full Employment have shown evidence that they will probably never be able to work full-time continuously in the competitive labour force.

This evidence is obtained through an assessment, which shows that they have multiple barriers or a persistent mental or physical health problem that limits their ability to sustain competitive employment.

During the 3 years the UCP have been in power, the number of BFE households has dropped by over 3,500, from 22,464 in April 2019 to 18,931 in April 2022. That’s 15.73% decrease.

Remember, these are people who likely can never be back in the workforce again.

And that’s not counting the change in Alberta’s population during the last three years, which increased by 3.6% during that 3-year period. You’d think that the number of people needing income support would also increase, even if by a smaller amount.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news stories, focusing on municipal, provincial, and federal politics, specializing in investigative journalism and critical analysis from a leftist political lens. He also writes regular editorials on general politics and social issues.

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