Four years ago, the government of Alberta began an aggressive program to get people off welfare.
In terms of its first objective, reducing the number of people on public assistance, the program has been spectacularly successful. The caseload in Alberta has fallen by nearly 60%, from more than 94,000 to fewer than 40,000. But have the changes caused suffering?
According to a recent study conducted by the Canada West Foundation (CWF) in Calgary, not much at all. The study took a unique approach. It directly asked many of the thousands of affected individuals and families how the reforms had changed their lives. The answers were revealing.
Two-thirds of the people surveyed were working, and eighty percent of them believed life had improved since they left welfare. Most had full-time jobs. Ninety percent agreed that able-bodied welfare recipients should work for their benefits. Almost three-quarters felt there would be fewer social problems if individuals and their families took more responsibility for themselves.
These results are startling, especially in the light of conventional social assistance wisdom, which labels any effort to reduce welfare caseloads as "mean-spirited". Those who had found employment were earning an average of $1,300 a month, a lot more than a minimum-wage earner can garner working full time. If pushing people off welfare generally increases their incomes, how cruel is it?
The study confirms the successful implementation of the guidelines laid down by Alberta’s Minister of Family and Social Services at the beginning of the reforms in 1993:
- No one really wants to be on welfare.
- Recipients cannot be better off on welfare than low-income working Albertans.
- Any job is a good job.
Shrilly derided at the outset, these principles have proven workable in practice.
Two-thirds of the survey respondents off welfare reported that they had found it difficult to obtain adequate food and shelter at least once since leaving the program. But more than four-fifths of those who had gone back on welfare had experienced the same problem while previously on assistance. Although 11.7% of those off welfare said they were having trouble meeting basic needs "all the time" under the new program, 32.5% had reached that level of desperation as recipients under the old system. Only two out of ten who had left welfare used a food bank afterwards, but more than half of those who had returned reported doing so. The CWF study found clear evidence that "those who have left welfare are, as a group, better off financially and psychologically than those that are back on welfare."
Albertans who are unemployable for good reasons, like severe handicaps, have been transferred to "assured support" programs that maintain their incomes at former levels, but employable persons have had their benefits reduced. The provincial government offers them financial assistance to return to work. Supplemental assistance is available to those whose income from employment can’t satisfy basic needs or who are temporarily unavailable for work or training. Programs have been created or expanded to provide training and work experience, and a third of those who have left welfare have taken advantage of them.
That doesn’t mean that poverty and misery have disappeared in Alberta. Mental illness, substance abuse and family breakdown cut as wide a swath as ever, and nearly half of those who went back on the dole have sought the assistance offered by the government to deal with these problems. Almost three-quarters of the study’s sample rated the staff at Family and Social Services as five or better out of ten in helping them to achieve independence, and more than a fifth gave them an eight or better.
Those who think social assistance should be generous and easy to obtain, as it is almost everywhere else, should take a look at the CWF study.
We are doing the poor no favours by maintaining an arrangement that perpetuates their dependence. According to most of them, they’re better off without it.