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NDP calls on Liberals to detail impact of COVID aid on benefits to seniors, families

OTTAWA — The New Democrats are calling on the federal government to provide a full accounting of how much Canadians have lost in benefits after they relied on emergency financial aid last year.

OTTAWA — The New Democrats are calling on the federal government to provide a full accounting of how much Canadians have lost in benefits after they relied on emergency financial aid last year. 

In a letter to Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, the NDP critic on the file notes that federal officials in the spring looked into which families would lose the most in benefits this year.

Daniel Blaikie said his party wants to know why the Liberals didn't give a clear warning about the impacts when officials first became aware of the possibility.

The reason for the decline in benefits is that the government counted the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and its successor, the Canada Recovery Benefit, as income for the purposes of calculating benefit amounts. 

As incomes rose, benefit values dropped.

The government warned people that the benefit would be considered income, framed often around the need to put some of it away because of the potential effects at tax time.

But Blaikie said there was no such advance warning for parents who receive the Canada Child Benefit or low-income seniors who receive the guaranteed income supplement.

He now wants the government to figure out how to help those affected.

"If receiving pandemic benefits were going to change people's access to those programs, then there should have been fair warning from the government. There wasn't," Blaikie said Friday.

Freeland's office in a statement noted the government provided a top-up of up to $1,200 for each child under age six this year because of the pandemic, adding the government would "continue to be there for Canadians as we finish the fight against COVID-19 and build a better future for everyone."

Internal government documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the access to information law show that low-income families were expected to see the sharpest drops in support through the Canada Child Benefit.

Emergency aid reduced income supplement payments for 183,417 seniors, who on average lost about $3,500 this year. About 83,000 seniors who received the CERB or one of the three federal recovery benefits were pushed above the income threshold to qualify for the guaranteed income supplement.

There are other benefits calculated based on income, which is why Blaikie has asked the government to make public how many people have seen their benefit payments reduced, and how much they have lost. 

The government put an end to the Canada Recovery Benefit last month, and the two remaining recovery benefits — one for parents staying home with sick children, and another for workers needing sick days — come to an end Saturday.

The government estimated the extra weeks would help 114,000 sickness benefit claimants and 404,000 caregivers. It estimated it would cost $271.1 million, a fraction of the almost $32.9 billion spent across the three recovery benefits thus far.

The Liberals have promised to extend benefits until May for workers subject to lockdown, but need parliamentary approval to do so.

A federal analysis of where CERB payments went last year showed payments overlapped closely with the distribution of Canada's unemployed over the same time.

Officials wrote in an August briefing note to Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough that the data suggested help was "proportionate with workers' needs for income support to provide for themselves and their families during the hard times of the pandemic."

The Canadian Press obtained the document under the Access to Information Act. 

Blaikie said that help might end up being for naught if people can't pay their bills this year. It's why he's asking for a meeting with Freeland to discuss the issue.

"We should just sit down and figure it out together what we have to do in order to make sure we don't leave these people behind, and that the effects that we were fearful of last year for them and others don't come to pass this year," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 19, 2021.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press