Who would have ever thought – when the dust settled following the worst of the pandemic – that poor-bashing would make a comeback?
When we all experienced the lifestyle changes and losses of freedom characterized by Covid-19, many of us hoped that this could bring diverse elements of civil society together.
In many ways, it did. We ushered in a broad array of popular programs in Canada and the US to support us to stay safe in the face of fear and uncertainty. In Canada, we spent an extra $102 billion and increased our income security spending by almost 45% to get us through.
Yet in other ways, the pandemic divided us. I only need to mention vaccines to make that point.
In Canada, there is a famous nostrum that says that “thou shalt not repeal an existing program.” Nevertheless, by October 2022, we rolled back and otherwise completely dismantled all six of the increments and new income programs that we had put in place in 2020 and 2021: a GST credit increment, extra payments for OAS, GIS, and people with disabilities, the CERB and the CRB and important temporary enhancements to EI.
Not one of these programs was extended and similar rollbacks occurred in the US.
But if you have been watching closely in both countries, we are now seeing a surprising and sudden upsurge in suspicion and resentment of the poor in the post pandemic period.
It is surprising because both countries fully dismantled all their pandemic programs that benefited low-income people. It is also surprising because a good portion of the people who were raised out of poverty during the pandemic have now returned to poverty or are well on their way to being poor again. They did not get rich.
It is also surprising as both before and after the pandemic, programs for low income and poor people like welfare and disability payments have been a near free fall for the last 30 years. Social or income assistance rates in Canada are much lower in real terms than they were decades ago and the number of people receiving benefits are comparatively low.
It is sudden because of the number of media stories showcasing governments going after the poor in ways that are reminiscent off the Welfare bashing of fifty years ago.
So, what is going on?
Let us think about that after we present some of the latest media and reports on the issue, two from the US and three from Canada. All are important litmus’s for public opinion – prophetic canaries down mineshafts.
The first is a feature from the Washington Post on May 16, 2023 called:
“Eyes on the poor: Cameras, facial recognition watch over public housing:Surveillance cameras purchased with federal crime-fighting grants are being used to punish and evict public housing residents, sometimes for minor rule violations, a Washington Post investigation found”
As the article put it:
“local officials are installing a new generation of powerful and pervasive surveillance systems, imposing an outsize level of scrutiny on some of the nation’s poorest citizens.”
The connection with the end of the worst of the pandemic is not lost:
“Nationally, evictions from public housing have surged since late 2021, when the federal government liftedan eviction moratorium put in place to protect renters during the pandemic.”
And as an administrator put it:
“People choose to get evicted by their actions…”
That says it all. Suspicion and resentment are alive and well again.
But this type of piece might be a one-off if we did not also have the debt ceiling issue roiling in the US.
Too much ink has already been spilled on the ceiling itself so I will spare you here. But one aspect of the debt ceiling compromise that literally has nothing to do with debt is of much higher interest. Republicans want work requirements brought in as part of he debt deal:
“Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s demand that any deal to raise the debt limit must include stricter work requirements for social safety net programs.
The bill House Republicans passed in April would make able-bodied adults without dependents who receive food benefits subject to work requirements until they are 55 years old. It would require Medicaid recipients between the ages of 19 and 55 who are able-bodied and do not have dependents to either work, engage in community service or participate in a work-training program for at least 80 hours per month to remain eligible for benefits.”
As commentator David Firestone explained in his essay in the New York Times:
“It’s been clear for years that these kinds of work requirements don’t actually put people back to work; they just pry people away from the benefits they need.
But since the goal … is cutting spending, not putting people back to work, the burdensome rules do save billions through human suffering.”
Turning to Canada, we are not far behind in scapegoating the poor with the unprecedented hounding of people who our Canada Revenue Agency has decided were ineligible for pandemic benefits.
To be sure, suspicion and resentment of the poor did not begin with a return to near normalcy. It was alive and well in 2020.
The acceptance of CERB for some was, at bottom, about stigma and how you may be viewed as a recipient: possibly a lazy ‘e-beggar’ as the National Post exposed in a 2020 headline for a column:
“John Ivison: Trudeau’s lavish handouts risk turning workers into welfare slackers.”
Ivison made his position clear:
“There is a worry that some workers might prefer to sit on their duffs for the next three months, pocketing $2,000 a month, rather than going back to work when called by their employers”
“Even if it’s not yet clear to the prime minister, pressures are growing on the Liberal government to take action to ensure its generous safety net for workers does not become a summer hammock.”
But it was not until benefits came to their end that the government confirmed that they shared both the suspicions and resentment of the National Post.
In her report on Covid-19 benefits, Canada’s Auditor General has the following to say:
“As with the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, we found that the lowest-income recipients of the Canada Recovery Benefit could earn more from receiving the benefit than from working. Low-income earners (with gross earnings of $20,000 or less per year) who received the recovery benefit for all periods (54 weeks) effectively replaced their annual income by 119%.
“In our opinion, the ability for low-income individuals to earn more on the Canada Recovery Benefit represented a disincentive to work, which impacted some labour markets at a crucial time when the need for employees was trending upwards.”
This is absolute classic poor bashing. Offer low-income people money and they will choose not to work. Of course, such thinking never appears to apply to the people who claim that an adequate income discourages work.
‘Would you stop working if someone offered you slightly more money than you were being paid to work?’
Their reply is almost always:
‘Of course not!’
It is always the ‘other guy or gal’ who is doing less well than us who we resent and hold under suspicion.
In Budget 2023, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland cloaked suspicion and resentment in the language of efficiency and integrity when she doubled down on pandemic benefit overpayment collection:
“To minimize delays and ensure that Canadians received the support they needed, benefits arrived quickly. Inevitably, this led to overpayments and, in some cases, abuse of the system. In Budget 2023, the government is taking further action to ensure the integrity of Canada’s emergency benefit system.
Budget 2023 proposes to provide $53.8 million in 2022-23 to Employment and Social Development Canada to support integrity activities relating to overpayments of COVID-19 emergency income supports.”
And that money only goes to Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC). The CRA appears to be spending even more.
But now we have two problems. The first is that the programs apparently created work disincentives and the people who collected them were possible abusers.
What do we do now?
We need to do two things.
The first is to remember that two wrongs do not make a right. When the CERB and CRB were rolled out, people were encouraged to apply for them to stay safe. The rules were unclear and they changed many times.
We need to remember that social income assistance recipients were not only encouraged to apply for the CERB and CRB, they were in many instances obligated to apply under social assistance rules. And once they were in pay, recipients were most often cut off their assistance under clawback rules.
We need to stop clogging our courts and benefit administrations by truly ending pandemic programs by wiping the slate clean.
We need to declare a CERB amnesty.
The second thing to remember is that reducing poverty is a good thing. Canada cut its poverty rate by more than half since 2015 from 14.6% to 6.4 during the pandemic.
Poverty costs society a lot of money in additional health costs, legal costs, poor nutrition, hungry children, mental health and homelessness. Fewer poor Canadians means lower overall costs of poverty.
This means we must redouble our efforts to provide decent work at good wages, provide better benefits and keep important housing and income security initiatives alive and thriving.
During the pandemic, we made important strides in poverty reduction with programs that were not themselves designed to reduce poverty.
Let us not fall into the trap of blaming the poor for the deficiencies in their design.
Postscript: Deconstructing the damaging new mythology of the CERB cheat
I have been doing a lot of thinking about the new round of poor bashing in the US and Canada characterized by the narrative surrounding CERB collections, the debt ceiling in the US and new rounds of surveillance of low-income people.
The key theme for me now is the destructive new mythology being constructed around pandemic benefits.
Thousands if not millions of non-working people (those who did not earn the $5,000 CERB threshold) illegally collected billions of dollars and now do not want to pay it back. The federal government is right to go after them. These people took advantage of a hurried design with few safeguards and took advantage of the largesse of Canadians. The design encouraged people to stop working and they would not go back when their employers wanted them back and now they want to keep money they knowingly collected while ineligible.
Pandemic programs like the CERB were rushed out the door with massive encouragement by governments for people to apply for them, collect and stay safe. The rules changed over and over in the early days. Even now, legacy CRA websites (that are still freely available online) contradict each other.
Social assistance recipients (about 5% of Canada’s population or 1 in 20 people) were legally ordered to apply for the CERB and were threatened with sanctions and penalties if they did not.
Pandemic benefits were largely clawed back from other benefits they received.
In the aftermath, the rules surrounding pandemic benefits were greatly tightened up in the following ways:
1. The $5000 threshold in income was restricted to the incomes covered in the legislation – much more restrictive than was communicated on websites e.g., Honourariums are noted as qualifying incomes online but are not covered in CERB legislation).
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.
3. CERB claimants were retrospectively required by the Tax Court to have bookkeeping of near forensic accounting quality and detail to prove their eligibility. If appellants can not produce meticulously 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 from pandemic benefits.
5. Hardship rules that normally apply are being significantly tightened to disallow longer payment terms.
6. Over $50 million in new funds were allocated in the Federal Budget to chase down low-income people who were found ineligible for benefits despite the many contradictions in the communications material and administration.
All of this is turning out to be incredibly destructive and is overshadowing the fact that Canada managed to meet its poverty goals nine years early. This incredible achievement – instead of being celebrated – is being falsely seen by some as a failed experiment in protecting our most vulnerable residents.
 https://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/internet/docs/parl_oag_202212_10_e.pdf – p.18