Welfare cases are on the rise in Canada as laid-off workers exhaust their federal employment insurance benefits and turn to provincial social assistance programs for help.
Ontario in particular is calling on Ottawa to step in with a further expansion of federal EI so that provinces and workers are treated the same no matter where they live in Canada. Because EI is easier to get in regions of historically high unemployment, the province says many Ontarians who lost their jobs during the recession were left out. Government documents also show that the way Ottawa distributes EI money across Canada for training programs is not based on population, opening the program to criticism that it is unfair to some provinces.
A Human Resources and Skills Development Canada document entitled, Employment Insurance: Time to Rethink, warns that the program "disenfranchises" the self-employed, immigrants, part-time workers and recent graduates.
The calls for further EI changes suggest the $7-billion in temporary measures Ottawa is spending to protect jobs during the recession has not silenced debate over the adequacy of Canada's social safety net.
The rising number of welfare cases is a splash of bad economic news amid a recent string of positive reports noting Canada's rising GDP and corporate profits and declining unemployment. (On Friday, a report from Statistics Canada showed the economy produced another 21,000 jobs in February, and the unemployment rate had dropped to a 10-month low of 8.2 per cent.)
It is also a development that is largely hidden, as only a few provinces publish welfare statistics, and the federal government does not report how many Canadians run out of EI benefits.
Canada's three most populous provinces - British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec - report welfare data, and all three show increases.
Social assistance cases in B.C. are up 14 per cent between January, 2009, and January, 2010. Ontario's numbers are up 11 per cent over the same period, while Quebec reports a lower increase of 2 per cent from December, 2008, to December, 2009.
Past recessions have shown similar patterns in which welfare cases rise in spite of an improving economy. Some observers believe the welfare caseload is at its peak and could start to decline as summer seasonal work becomes available.
Ontario Community and Social Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur said the number of cases has risen because those who qualified for EI are exhausting their benefits, and because Ontario is not a region of traditionally high unemployment.
"Ontario's employees and Ontario workers should be entitled to EI at the same level as any other worker in the country," she said in an interview.
Federal opposition parties have called for a national standard for accessing EI instead of the existing system, which adjusts automatically by region over time based on unemployment rates.
Ms. Meilleur said the system has made some positive adjustments, but still leaves many Ontarians in a tougher spot than others.
Federal Human resources documents written in 2008 and released this month to Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin include similar concerns. One document points out that EI money for skills training is not spread to the provinces on a per capita basis and "clearly exacerbates the perceived inequities" of the program. It points out that Newfoundland would receive 1.6 per cent of the funding if it were a per capita system, yet it receives between 5 and 9 per cent.
In an interview, federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said her government brought in major temporary expansions of the EI system - including an extension of work sharing programs announced in the 2010 budget.
"Obviously, we're not out of the woods yet in terms of the recession. We did notice going in that it was going to take a lot of people longer to find jobs," she said. As for the government documents listing groups that do not qualify for EI, Ms. Finley noted that the benefits are only for those who pay EI premiums.
"It is insurance," she said. "Just as with any other form of insurance, you have to pay premiums before you can collect the benefits. That's the whole principle behind it."
Only a handful of provinces release data on welfare case loads. As for employment insurance, Statistics Canada and Human Resources Development Canada are working on a way to report the number of people who have exhausted their federal benefits, but there is no indication as to when this work will be done. Canada's three most populous provinces do report social assistance caseloads. Here's a look at how they have changed:
Jan. 2009: 115,782
Jan. 2010: 132,304
Percentage increase: 14.3 per cent
Jan. 2009: 739,048
Jan. 2010: 819,084
Percentage increase: 10.8 per cent
Dec. 2008: 476,196
Dec. 2009: 485,114
1.9 per cent