Gaslighting the working poor – pathologizing poverty reduction

Pandemic hardship is still a daily event for low-income workers who received pandemic benefits and must now repay those benefits.

They must repay even though significant numbers of people were ordered to apply for them by governments that deducted them from other benefits.

The CERB and CRB programs although cancelled in 2022, are still with us in the form of their cruel alter ego – the collection agency. A true Jekyll and Hyde story.

The media reported that up to 65% of recipients were ineligible[1] for the programs.

And high ineligibility is likely accurate because what CRA is enforcing now looks nothing like what they communicated and implemented back in May 2020.

The federal government is enforcing much stricter rules than those they used for implementation.

Here are just four of the ways the CERB and CRB – Canada’s largest ever income security programs – were tightened up:

  1. The $5000 threshold in income was restricted to the incomes covered in the legislation – much more restrictive than was communicated on websites.

2. The $5000 had to be received not just earned. Many people worked but did not receive their pay because of pandemic business distress and failure. But people who earned money but did not receive it are being retroactively made ineligible for CERB. This rule simply makes no sense.

3. CERB claimants were retrospectively required by Tax Court decisions to have bookkeeping of near forensic accounting quality and detail to prove their eligibility. If appellants can not produce detailed accounts, they are often found ineligible.

4. Claimants who ‘just missed’ in terms of their eligibility were sanctioned. The rules contained no exceptions whatever nor any room for Judges to make findings of eligibility. Exceptionality that applies to almost all programs is completely absent for pandemic benefits.

Following the Auditor General’s report on benefit eligibility and the government’s allegations of ‘abuse’ – (their word), the CRA is now gaslighting the working poor who applied for pandemic benefits.

Gaslighting…  is a manipulative abuse tactic where a survivor begins to question their own reality. This is done by the abuser questioning facts, denying memories the survivor has, undermining their judgment and bullying them into believing the abuser’s reality[2].

A CBC report noted that there were over 1,000 cases protesting pandemic benefit decisions[3] mostly by unrepresented applicants. They are CRA’s gaslit victims of programs that performed admirably in reducing poverty during the pandemic.

The reality is that pandemic benefits reduced poverty in greater numbers than ever achieved before[4]. In big cities, working poverty dropped in half.

But with all this unplanned and inadvertent success, we now have a new Minister in the Honourable Jenna Sudds who has become Minister responsible for poverty reduction following the Cabinet reset of Summer 2023. We all wish her well.

Before the shuffle, Karina Gould was Minister responsible for poverty reduction.

She did almost nothing on the file making it deliciously ironic that the government met most of its legislated poverty reduction goals 10 years early – on her watch.

What is the government thinking now? Job done?

It appears now that the government – either through neglect or design – is pathologizing poverty reduction through their silence on results and their emphasis on prosecuting the poor[5].

On poverty reduction, the federal government has lost its way. Jenna Sudds will need to find a way.

The public and media has been forced to refract poverty into its component parts of unaffordable housing, food insecurity, digital disentitlement and degraded public transit. Not a bad thing on its own but poverty is the sum of the degradation of its elements and provides an important focus for action.  

In a heartbeat, gaslit and silenced, we have stopped talking about poverty.

Who thought we would be in such a place in 2023?