Welfare recipients in Manitoba get enough money for a bare-bones existence but they live far below several different poverty lines.
But instead of boosting overall welfare rates, the province should begin moving single parents and the disabled off welfare and into work as the best cure for chronic poverty.
Those are among the findings of a long-awaited internal review of Manitoba's social-assistance rates, which critics have called stingy, complicated and out-of-date. The review is to be made public next week, but the Winnipeg Free Press got an advance look.
'This would likely make the transition from (employment and income assistance) to work more sustainable, and produce more desirable
outcomes for all concerned'
"The upshot is that we have a lot of work to do," Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross said. "The information here tells us that there have been improvements but that there still needs to be a strong plan."
The report calculated core daily basic needs, the amount allowed by welfare regulations, at about $10,100 per year for a single person. That doesn't include extras such as a bus pass, a telephone or recreation, things welfare advocates say help poor people feel less isolated. The average single parent and disabled person on welfare gets nearly $10,100, thanks to some top-ups. But single employable people get much less -- about $6,900.
But those amounts fall well below many other measures of real poverty, including the low-income cut-off Statistics Canada uses and a new poverty line developed recently by the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg and Winnipeg Harvest, both of which have been lobbying for welfare reform. By several standards, Manitobans on welfare would need to double their income to be at the poverty line.
Marianne Cerilli, a member of the local welfare-advocates network and policy analyst with the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, said the review misses the mark on several fronts. At 24 pages, it's piddly, even though the government had three years to do the study, along with clear direction from Manitoba's ombudsman. And there's no detail on how the government decides how much welfare recipients get for food, clothing and other essentials. Instead, the government has assumed existing amounts are reasonable.
"They've created a new, lower poverty line to be able to justify not raising the rates," said Cerilli. "It's pretty weird."
Todd Donohue, a volunteer mentor at the West Broadway Community Ministry whose Crohn's disease means he's been on social-assistance disability for years, said welfare rates consistently fall short of the real cost of living, especially for housing.
And he said he was disappointed the review didn't tackle the issue of clawbacks. Right now, in many cases, if a welfare recipient earns more than $200 a month, that amount is immediately lopped off their welfare cheque. Boosting the employment-income exemption to $500 a month would make it much easier for people on welfare to ease into the working world.
"This would likely make the transition from (employment and income assistance) to work more sustainable, and produce more desirable outcomes for all concerned," said Donohue.
People on welfare fall into three official categories -- the disabled such as Donohue, single parents and people on general assistance, which typically includes single, employable people.
Following a batch of new government programs aimed at getting welfare recipients into the workforce, most single, employable people have already found jobs, the report said.
The rest are unemployable, perhaps because of addictions or other chronic problems. Next, the government hopes to begin using incentives, training programs and special support to move single parents off welfare into work once their children turn two years old. Until now, single parents weren't expected to look for work until their children attended grade school. The province also wants people with disabilities to eventually get the same intensive help to find jobs, a move welfare advocates support.
People who have severe, long-term disabilities ought to get a permanent pension, the report says. Already, Manitoba has joined other provinces in discussing the idea with the federal government, but a national disability pension could be years away.