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Income supports urgently needed in Manitoba

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Manitoba must help those being clobbered financially by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the right thing to do, we can afford it and, as a diverse array of economists have noted, public spending is needed in a time of crisis. It's time to put the oft-repeated phrase “We are all in this together” into action. Those who need extra support should get help, now, so we do not leave anyone behind during the pandemic. 

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/05/2020 (949 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Manitoba must help those being clobbered financially by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the right thing to do, we can afford it and, as a diverse array of economists have noted, public spending is needed in a time of crisis. It’s time to put the oft-repeated phrase “We are all in this together” into action. Those who need extra support should get help, now, so we do not leave anyone behind during the pandemic. 

People with fewer resources are more at risk of COVID-19. A second or third wave of the disease could very well result in higher rates of the virus and more deaths in racialized low- and moderate-income neighbourhoods, as has been the experience in the United States. As New York City councilman Mark Levine said, “This disease does not discriminate, but society does.”

Manitoba’s economic and racial disparity is well documented, and we are setting up a perfect storm as the only province not offering income supports. This lack of action is poor short-term thinking that will cost the province more in the long term by creating swollen social-assistance rolls and lost consumer stimulus. Here are three things the province could do:

Top up federal income supports

The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) provides $2,000 a month for those who’ve lost work. In some European countries, workers’ incomes affected by COVID-19 are being replaced at rates of up to 90 per cent, compared to Canada’s Employment Insurance replacement rate of only 55 per cent up to only $54,000 in insurable earnings (this means a maximum benefit of about $2,300 per month).

The Manitoba Government Employees Union has called for a provincial top-up of 95 per cent to EI for impacted employees. Instead, the premier is asking public-sector workers to reduce their incomes by up to three days’ worth per week. Part time, contract and casual workers may lose their jobs entirely.

The premier is lobbying the federal government to permit public-sector workers to be eligible for EI for the work reduction, a move experts say will likely not be approved by the federal government. Many workers would prefer to be redeployed to help with the COVID-19 response, rather than having hours and pay cut.  

British Columbia and New Brunswick are providing support even if workers qualify for federal aid; Manitoba should do the same as a top-up to EI. 

Adapt Rent Assist for COVID-19

Manitoba’s shelter benefit for those on assistance and the working poor provides a monthly benefit up to 75 per cent of CMHC’s median market rent (MMR). Eligibility is based on last year’s tax return. It is a good program, but a newly launched report titled Assisting Renters, by the Manitoba Non-Profit Housing Association and our office, found the majority of private-market renters on the Rent Assist program still face unaffordable rents.

Additionally, changes made to eligibility for the program in 2017 mean Rent Assist no longer brings a full-time single adult working at minimum wage above the poverty line.

Lack of provincial support for renters during COVID-19 forces tenants and landlords into an impossible situation —while evictions for late payment of rent have been banned by the province during the pandemic, a lack of income support will just delay the problem of amassed rental debt. At the end of COVID-19, many tenants could face bankruptcy and eviction, creating an even larger problem.

Manitoba clearly has provincial jurisdiction in housing, and could easily create a rapid sign-up process to enable people to qualify for Rent Assist now while increasing this benefit to 85 per cent of the MMR to better meet housing-affordability standards.

Emergency funding: Employment and Income Assistance (EIA) & Non-Profits and Charities

Single adults on EIA live just on $800 a month for food and shelter. Inadequate social-assistance rates are a public-health liability. EIA doesn’t cover cell phones or internet, so folks can’t call Health Links or a doctor. Those on social assistance who apply for the CERB will have their social assistance clawed back by the province, despite the federal government asking Manitoba not to do so.

An April 24 Department of Families circular instructed EIA workers to tell eligible new clients to first apply to CERB, effectively off-loading new EIA cases to the federal government. Instead, Make Poverty History Manitoba is asking our province to follow the lead of B.C., which is providing a $300-per-month COVID-19 crisis supplement for those on provincial assistance and low-income seniors during the pandemic. 

Many EIA recipients survive thanks to community-based organizations, which, despite providing life-sustaining services during the pandemic, now face threatened funding clawbacks from the province. The province funds many family resource centres, youth-service agencies, women’s centres, shelters and other groups directly serving low-income people.

The province should follow the lead of the Winnipeg Foundation and United Way of Winnipeg and provide emergency funding to these groups so they can continue to provide take-away supplies to people, hire staff when volunteers have to self-isolate, and have adequate safety equipment for staff.

How do we pay for it?

Manitoba has a relatively low debt-to-GDP ratio and has room to borrow to finance needed COVID-19 income supports. Notably, the province has found public money to pay for private-sector responses to the COVID pandemic, including $18 million to set up new private-home child care, $4.5 million to Morneau Shepell for cognitive behaviour therapy, $4 million for an InTouch 24/7 call centre to sign Manitoba businesses up for federal benefits, and funding for North Forge for a volunteer website.

These signal that not only does Manitoba have money for items the province deems a priority, the government is choosing to contract with the private sector and ignoring the incredible skills of the public sector to respond to the crisis. 

Action at the provincial level is needed now to demonstrate that the phrase “We are all in this together” means that we will care for everyone impacted so that we can all recover together from this pandemic, and not leave some Manitobans destitute or let the impacts of COVID-19 linger in low-income communities for years to come. 

Molly McCracken is the director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – Manitoba and a steering committee member of Make Poverty History Manitoba.

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