Alberta is providing social assistance to 10,000 fewer people, primarily due to CERB

Social assistance caseloads in Alberta have dropped dramatically during the pandemic, with the provincial government providing income support to roughly 10,000 fewer households since March.

Other provinces allowed poorest residents to keep both federal and provincial benefits

rajan sawhney
Rajan Sawhney, Alberta's minister of community and social services, speaks at a press conference in this file photo. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Social assistance caseloads in Alberta have dropped dramatically during the pandemic, with the provincial government providing income support to roughly 10,000 fewer households since March.

"It's mainly because a lot of these clients have access to federal Canadian Emergency Response Benefit funding," said Rajan Sawhney, Alberta's minister of community and social services.

Albertans who had previously been receiving income support from the province but started receiving CERB payments have seen the provincial benefits clawed back.

The province exempts some of the federal benefit from its income-support calculations, but for thousands of people receiving $2,000 per month under CERB, it adds up to a complete elimination of their provincial social assistance.

"Essentially, if you are receiving the federal benefit, it effectively means that the benefit that you receive from income support comes to zero," Sawhney said.

The result has been a rapid reduction in Alberta's income-support caseload, which has fallen to its lowest level in years.

The program is designed to help unemployed Albertans who have exhausted their Employment Insurance benefits, who can't work, or who are trying to find work and are in need of financial support.

"The income-support program is a program of last resort," Sawhney said.

Other provinces have taken a different approach when calculating how CERB affects social assistance recipients.

Larger or full exemptions

The Ontario government adopted a larger exemption for CERB payments, which it says "enables existing clients to partially stack the CERB and social assistance payments."

B.C. went a step further, with a complete exemption for CERB.

The result is that British Columbians receiving income assistance "see no deductions on their monthly assistance cheques," a spokesperson with B.C.'s Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction said in an email.

"I imagine a lot of positive impacts are happening for people in B.C. who get to keep more of it," said Lee Stevens with Vibrant Communities Calgary, a non-profit organization dedicated to poverty reduction.

"These people are probably finally able to breathe, put food on their table, pay their bills, think about possibly going back to school, getting retrained."

While they won't receive as much financial support as people in B.C., Stevens said Albertans who lost their provincial social assistance due to CERB are still receiving more financial support than they were before the pandemic.

"Basically, $2,000 a month is more than they were ever getting on income support, so they're actually better off," she said.

Individuals and single parents mostly affected

Alberta's income-support data shows the biggest declines among individuals and single parents, who accounted for roughly 92 per cent of the caseload reduction from March to June.

"I would venture to say that these are individuals who haven't been on the income support program for that long, because they still are eligible for the federal benefit," Sawhney said.

To qualify for CERB, applicants must have earned at least $5,000 in employment income in 2019 or in the 12 months prior to the date of their application.

The change in provincial income support was also more pronounced in Alberta's biggest cities, with people living in Calgary and Edmonton accounting for 76 per cent of the caseload reduction.

Other factors would also be at play, but Sawhney said CERB was the primary driver of the sudden decline in income-support cases in Alberta.

The CERB program is set to end on Sept. 27.

Sawhney said Albertans who stopped receiving income assistance due to CERB will have to reapply in order to start receiving the provincial support again.

Budget impact and program future

Alberta had budgeted $936 million for employment and income support in its 2020-21 budget. (That's on top of $1.29 billion for the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped, or AISH, program.)

Sawhney said it's too soon to know how the reduction in income-support caseloads during CERB will affect the provincial budget.

She noted the program will be there, by law, going forward, and the $936-million figure in the budget is an estimate based on various economic assumptions — not a hard cap.

"I do want to emphasize that this is a legislated program … and anybody who is eligible for this program, it is accessible to them," she said.

"It's available to anybody who needs it."


Robson Fletcher

Data Journalist / Senior Reporter

Robson Fletcher's work for CBC Calgary focuses on data, analysis and investigative journalism. He joined CBC in 2015 after spending the previous decade working as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.