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February 2, 2010

Income Assistance Caseloads Up - Yet Again

The latest welfare statistics are more bad news for the Campbell government, and for those who hope for mercy in the March 3rd budget. Relative to December 2008, the caseload in December 2009 increased by 45.4% for those categorized as "expected to work", and by 15.6% for all recipients of assistance. That's not the half of it since relative to December 2006 the "expected to work" caseload was was up 118%, and the total caseload was up 27%. This is bad news for the 130,341 income assistance "cases" and bad news for the provincial budget.

Total welfare caseload 2006-2009As shown by the graph, the welfare caseload has been increasing at a shocking rate since September 2008.

When the 2009 September budget update was tabled in the legislature, the budget for income assistance was $1.56 billion, up from $1.38 billion from 2008-2009 but only up 7% from the budget tabled in February 2009. The September budget update said that $160 million would be added to the budget for income assistance each of the two subsequent fiscal years. On March 3rd we'll how those notional entries compare with the 2010-2011 budget and the projection through to 2012-2013.

The "Material Assumptions - Expense" table in the September update indicated that the government assumed a temporary assistance average annual caseload of 56,382 for 2009-2010, increasing to 58,503 in 2010-2011. It also assumed a disability caseload of 72,344 for 2009-2010, increasing to 76,448 in 2010-2011. The actual annual average caseload for 2009 (calendar year, not fiscal year) was 52,311 for temporary assistance and 70,823 for disability assistance; those numbers will be slightly higher for the fiscal year ended March 31, 2010. The absolute caseload assumptions in the budget appear lower than the actual caseloads, but the implicit growth rate between this and next year of 3.7% for temporary assistance may be wishful thinking. On the other hand, the implicit assumption for the rate of growth for disability assistance, 5.7%, is very close to recent experience.

In his story in The Tyee about cutbacks to the income assistance appeal process, Andrew MacLeod may have hit on why the government feels confident that disability caseloads won't takeoff. MacLeod noted that while the annual report on the appeal process was released in December, it escaped notice in the media. Income assistance caseload statistics are reported monthly, but unlike monthly estimates of employment and unemployment from Statistics Canada, these reliable administrative data are usually ignored by the media. The Vancouver Province did what will probably be an award winning series on poverty, but even that paper rarely, if ever, reports changes in the welfare caseload. Those figures measure part of the human price of the economic downturn.