Canada child benefit seen as fighting poverty — as long as provinces co-operate

Next week's rollout of the Canada child benefit has been billed as a significant move to fight child poverty in Canada. But that move only succeeds if governments don't give with one hand and take with the other.

Campaign 2000 tracking provincial confirmations that the new federal benefit won't impact social assistance

The new Canada child benefit introduced by Justin Trudeau's Liberal government rolls out next Wednesday, July 20. Nine in 10 families will be better off under the new program, the federal government says. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Next week's rollout of the Canada child benefit has been billed as a significant move to fight child poverty.

But that move only succeeds if governments don't give with one hand and take with the other.

That's why anti-child poverty activists at Campaign 2000 were tracking confirmation from all provinces and territories that the payments low-income families receive under the new federal program will not be clawed back from existing social assistance programs.

"We know from international research that child benefits are absolutely an essential element in a child poverty reduction strategy," said Sid Frankel, a member of the group's national steering committee and an associate professor in the University of Manitoba's faculty of social work.

"It would be hard for the federal government to meet its poverty reduction commitment if the provinces did claw back, because they would be neutralizing at least part of the effect of the benefit."

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The size of the child benefit for families with less than $30,000 in net annual household income is significant — $6,400 for each child under six and $5,400 for children aged six through 17. Families with disabled children get even more.

The 2016 federal budget estimated that about 300,000 fewer children would live in poverty in 2016-17 compared with 2014-15, as a result of the increased benefit.

The new money replaces several programs, including the federal-provincial national child benefit, which was also income-tested and targeted at low-income kids, but not as substantial as the new program.

After CBC News made inquiries about potential clawbacks, the final few provinces confirmed they won't take away provincial benefits as a result of the new federal money.

'Progressive when they want to be'

Activists were worried about Manitoba and Saskatchewan, in particular, where child poverty among First Nations populations is a growing concern.

"Manitoba families receiving employment income assistance (EIA) are able to keep their [Canada] child benefit," a spokeswoman told CBC News Tuesday.

A spokesperson for Saskatchewan said her province also would have no corresponding clawback of social assistance.

"[Conservatives] can be progressive when they want to be," said Damon Johnston from the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg, who was among those lobbying Manitoba's minister.

While many First Nations children live in poverty, it can be difficult to administer government benefits targeted at Aboriginal communities. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The business community supports these kinds of programs, he said. "The evidence is there that lower-income families spend money on things they need."

"A very high percentage of mothers, when they get extra money of any kind, it will generally go to their kids," Johnston said. "We also know that welfare support to families … is not a living support, particularly in today's economic situation."

"Children who grow up in impoverished environments are more likely to do things that [cause them to] end up in jail, or that society doesn't want," he said.

Administration can be a challenge, however, when it comes to providing benefits for First Nations kids. 

Documents obtained by CBC News about the former universal child care benefit identified the need to reach out to aboriginal organizations to encourage more families to sign up with the Canada Revenue Agency.

The net income from federal tax returns is used to calculate the benefit. If low-income households don't file tax returns and register, they won't receive the help.

Indigenous or not, families with complex custody arrangements also present challenges in targeting the benefit in the right place.

'Moral suasion' at work

Additional federal benefits may also ease the strain on other social services.

For example, Jane Roy, the co-director of the food bank in London, Ont., told the London Free Press that demand at her agency dropped last summer after the larger, retroactive lump sum universal child benefit payments arrived in July. But the need was creeping back up again a few months later.

Prior to the Canada child benefit, Quebec's supplement for low-income families was based on different child ages and paid different amounts from the national child benefit in other provinces. 

Simon Laboissonnière, the press secretary for Quebec Employment and Social Solidarity Minister François Blais, told CBC News that Quebec won't claw back social assistance.

But some think Quebec might roll the CCB into a basic minimum income scheme. Laboissonnière said it was too early to say what the province might do.

Jean-Yves Duclos, the federal minister of families, children and social development, is seen here meeting with housing and poverty advocates in Victoria last month. His office calls the child benefit 'the most significant policy innovation in a generation' and estimates child poverty will decline from about 11.2 per cent to 6.7 per cent — the lowest rate ever in Canada. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

The federal government could have made clawbacks impossible by adding a condition to the Canada social transfer, the money the federal government transfers to provinces to support education and social assistance programs.

It chose not to.

The budget implementation act left a loophole, similar to one in place with the former Canada child tax benefit, that gave provinces leeway.

A spokeswoman for Employment and Social Development Canada wrote CBC News to say federal and provincial governments were collaborating to avoid any "negative interactions." 

"The government wants to ensure that the full amount of the increase in child benefits, with the introduction of the CCB, will be passed along to families," she wrote. "No province or territory has indicated that they are planning to deduct the CCB from social assistance."

"They're using a kind of moral suasion here," Campaign 2000's Frankel said.

"We have a federal government that has been clear to provinces about what it wants to happen, but also has been quite clear that the provinces will make the decision and it will not use the power it has."


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