Profiles of Welfare: Myths and Realities is a gold mine of new statistical information
about welfare in Canada. The National Council of Welfare is very pleased to be able to put this
information into the public domain with the co-operation of federal and provincial officials.
Every person who reads this report will learn something new. And every person will be
reminded that popular notions about welfare and welfare recipients are sometimes quite
far removed from the truth.
There are literally hundreds of observations that could be made from the information in
the social assistance profile project database. In our view, three of the most important
observations are as follows:
* There is no such thing as a "typical" welfare case.
* Welfare is a vital support for children as well as adults.
* Welfare has become a long-term source of income for a surprisingly large number
First and foremost, we hope that the people who read this report will be struck by the
diversity of welfare caseloads in Canada. The welfare rolls are made up of older people as well
as younger people, people with disabilities as well as people who are able-bodied, and people
who are well educated as well as people who are poorly educated. Every chapter of this report
is testimony to the varied backgrounds and circumstances of people on welfare. They differ in
their reasons for assistance, family types and sizes, housing arrangements, length of time on
welfare, and outside sources of income. Stereotypes about welfare are certain to
Given all the publicity about child poverty in recent months, it should come as no
surprise that more than one million of the people on welfare as of March 1997 were children
under the age of 18. They were on welfare for one simple reason: their parents or guardians
were on welfare.
Some readers may find this point too obvious to mention, but it is not always obvious
in the development of welfare policies in all provinces. Ontario, for example, did not exempt
families with children when it arbitrarily slashed its welfare rates in October 1995. Other
provinces talk of improving government benefits for children to "take children off welfare"
without acknowledging that it is impossible to do so without taking their parents off welfare
at the same time.
Perhaps the most disturbing data in the database was information about the length of
current spells on welfare. As of March 1997, 54 percent of the welfare cases had been on
welfare continuously for 25 months or more. Supplementary data from Quebec suggest that a
sizable number of these cases could be on welfare for many years at a stretch. Given the low
levels of income provided by welfare, it seems unlikely that people would consciously choose
to live on welfare year after year. It is sad to think that governments have been unable to come
up with better ways of managing the economy and creating more job opportunities for the people
who are willing and able to take advantage of them.
That brings us to the larger issue raised by this profile of welfare caseloads: What do we
do with all the new information? The National Council of Welfare has never supported the idea
of simply counting poor people and then walking away. The whole point of the exercise has
to be finding better ways of fighting poverty.
The welfare database gives us a good snapshot of caseloads in Canada as of March 1997.
It does not tell us, however, precisely how or why the people on welfare got there in the first
instance or predict how and when they might get off welfare in the future.
We would hope that social policy analysts both inside and outside government will use
the database as a spur to continue pursuing their own research and developing new policy
options. Among the most urgent options are dealing with the problem of long-term dependency
on welfare, finding more and better jobs for people, improving financial support for single
parents, and promoting government income supports for people with severe disabilities that
are more appropriate than welfare.
We would also hope that ordinary Canadians express their support for governments
dealing with these larger issues. Better welfare policies are in the interest of all Canadians,
because everyone is at risk of falling on welfare at some point in their lives. The numbers
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speak for themselves: the estimated 1,494,800 welfare cases as of March 1997 represented an
estimated 2,774,900 individual children, women and men or nearly ten percent of Canada's
Losing a job, losing a spouse, and losing good health are some of the reasons that people
go on welfare. The biggest myth of all would be to assume that most of us are immune to any
of these personal tragedies or the many other misfortunes that can lead to reliance on welfare.
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