Social assistance rates continue to soar despite Alberta s recovering economy
|calgaryherald.com 16 Apr 2018 at 05:12|
Alberta’s economy may be recovering but the number of provincial residents receiving social assistance has soared to record highs.
The most recent numbers from the province show 57,003 Albertans on income support as of Jan. 18, with 35,068 of that number considered eligible to work.
The Ministry of Community Services 2018-19 business plan released with the provincial budget last month says the number of those able to work who are receiving income support had more than doubled over the past four years, from just over 16,000 in 2014 to more than 34,000 in 2017.
A steep decline in oil prices plunged Alberta’s economy into recession in 2015 and 2016, but the economy has been growing since then, with the province experiencing 4.5 per cent GDP growth last year.
But the social assistance numbers aren’t surprising to the Calgary Food Bank, where usage continues at record levels as more than 5,000 food hampers are distributed each month.
“We haven’t seen any decline,” food bank spokeswoman Shawna Ogston said in an interview.
“We’re not seeing the 25 per cent spikes every month that we did when the recession hit . . . but we haven’t seen our numbers go down.”
The income support program helps those who do not have resources to meet their basic needs, including food, clothing and shelter. In January, 69 per cent of recipients were individuals, 23.5 per cent lone-parent families, 4.9 per cent couples with children and 2.6 per cent couples without children.
Ogston said people most affected by a downturn — those forced to use the food bank or go on social assistance — often are the last to benefit from an economic recovery. And she noted that a strong economy can still be accompanied by ongoing poverty and underemployment.
University of Calgary economist Ron Kneebone, who has extensively studied the income support numbers, says it’s a troubling sign for the province that social assistance levels remain high despite the resurgent economy.
Kneebone believes this recession and recovery is , and that oil and gas jobs won’t return to the same level as in the past.
“That’s got me worried that this is not going to come back down. And if it doesn’t come down, you have a real public policy issue here. You’ve got 30,000 more people than usual on social assistance and they’re not going to come off,” said Kneebone.
“If that’s the case, then that’s a serious public policy issue,” he added, suggesting an increased focus on job retraining by the NDP government.
Community Services Minister Irfan Sabir said there is always a lag between economic recovery and movement on social assistance.
Factors include ongoing population growth and the desire of some unemployed workers to find different positions, meaning longer job searches and retraining periods, he said.
The Calgary-McCall MLA said the numbers have reached record levels due to the severity of the recession, but the government expects that income support numbers among those who are able to work will drop by four per cent in 2018 and eventually return to pre-recession levels.
“Every downturn is different. This time around, I think it was one of the worst ones in a generation,” said Sabir, who touted government efforts to stimulate the economy and create jobs.
The number of employment insurance recipients in Alberta has declined significantly since topping 107,000 in the summer of 2016. But the most recent accounting of 63,510 recipients in January is nearly double the number at the start of 2015.
Individuals can’t access both EI and social assistance. Kneebone said he and others are trying to study the movement of those who have exhausted EI and moved to social assistance, but it is difficult to track because one program is federal and the other is provincial.
Ogston said there are definitely food bank clients who are still struggling to find work after losing their positions in the depths of the recession.
“We’ve heard from some people who’ve been looking for years,” she said.
Others have found work that doesn’t pay as much as their previous position and still need help despite being employed.