(Archive copy for historical purposes only)

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Social Assistance and Related Programs, 1994

Social Assistance and Related Programs ("SARP") was a hundred-plus-page working document produced by a team of six people at Health & Welfare Canada for the mid-1970s federal-provincial review of income maintenance programs in Canada. I was the sole person responsible for maintaining and updating the original report over the years from 1976 until 1994, when it was "retired" due to shifting government priorities.

Originally entitled "A Comparison of Provincial Social Assistance Programs", the report compared social assistance terms and conditions province by province, using a template of questions submitted by the federal and provincial deputy ministers (DMs) responsible for social assistance across Canada.

All of the information in the original version of this report was vetted by provincial and territorial social assistance authorities. Subsequent updates were vetted by a "Comparison" contact person in each jurisdiction for accuracy.

The Deputy Ministers also asked that the "Comparison" be maintained (by H&W Canada) on an ongoing basis and regularly disseminated to them to alert them to best practices in social assistance administration across the country.


I was already an employee of H&W Canada when I was offered the opportunity of maintaining and distributing the SARP report, and I accepted the offer. I was the sole project resource from the time I started on the project in 1976 until 1995, when the report was quietly shelved, because of waning interest by senior department people. Some white haired researchers out there will recall that 1995 was the year that the federal budget announced the end of 50% cost-sharing of approved provincial/territorial welfare expenditures under the Canada Assistance Plan, and the planned implementation of the Canada Health and Social Transfer in April of 1996.

By the time the SARP report was retired in 1994-95, the mailing list had grown from a dozen federal and provincial Deputy Ministers to over 300 federal and provincial government officials involved either in the social assistance area or a related area. As I found out when I did an informal phone survey, those 300 government officials used SARP to monitor each other's social assistance and related programs, specifically the terms and conditions relating to eligibility and benefit levels, in setting their own benefit levels and emulating best practices from other jurisdictions. The demise of SARP meant the disappearance of those monitoring functions.

The report content had also grown significantly from '76 to '95 --- from just over 100 pages to almost 500 pages, covering a wide range of provincial social assistance terms and conditions.

This report has been sitting on my computer's hard drive since 2003, when I retired from the federal civil service. I'd attempted to make this available beforehand, but converting files that were created in the last millennium ago (lol) presented all kinds of challenges. The final product is a bit rough around the edges in spots, especially when the content is in tabular form.

If you encounter any navigational issues or errors, or if you have related questions, you can reach me at


INTRODUCTION (See Footnote 1)

Provincial (See Footnote 2) and municipal social assistance programs, often called Canada's social security "safety net", are designed to provide income to meet the cost of basic requirements of a single person or a family when all other financial resources have been exhausted. This section contains general information on selected design features of social assistance programs in Canada, with appropriate references to specific sections of this report which provide detailed analysis of those features. This document focuses specifically on direct financial assistance to needy persons in their own homes, which represents the main thrust of provincial social assistance programs. It should be noted, however, that the relevant legislation in each province also includes provisions concerning health and social services, assistance to persons in designated institutions providing care or supervision, and a wide range of administrative considerations which are either not covered or only given passing reference in these pages.


Research Tip:
Throughout this report, you'll find cross-references to other sections of the report. The section numbers don't appear on the individual pages, but you can still find the section (or chapter) numbers in the Table of Contents.


Jurisdictional Matters

In accordance with the Constitution Act (formerly the British North America Act of 1867), each province is responsible for the design, administration and delivery of its own social assistance program. Most provinces have a single, unified social assistance program. Long-term benefits are generated by computerized payroll issue from the provincial headquarters and short-term and emergency assistance are issued manually in local or regional offices of the provincial department of Social Services or its equivalent. In Nova Scotia, Ontario and Manitoba, the provincial authority grants assistance where the client falls within a category which has been characterized as contributing to long-term need, while each municipality is responsible for providing support to persons in need who do not fall within the categories under provincial jurisdiction, such as unemployed employables. Applicants for long-term assistance awaiting transfer to the provincial program and households requiring single-issue grants of emergency assistance may also be required to apply for municipal social assistance. These three provinces are said to have a "two-tier" social assistance network.



In general terms, the only eligibility requirement for social assistance benefits is need, regardless of cause. Assistance may be granted to any individual or family head who is found, on the basis of a needs test, to be unable to provide adequately for himself and any dependants.


Administrative Requirements

Any social assistance applicant must meet some basic administrative requirements in order to establish initial eligibility. In all provinces, social assistance legislation allows program administrators to require an applicant to:

i) submit a duly completed application to the appropriate authority (usually on a prescribed form);

ii) provide any evidence as required in support of the application for assistance, such as proof of age, a medical certificate to confirm disability, a separation agreement, bank books, pay cheque stubs, etc.;

iii) meet with a worker to discuss the financial and social situation of the household (this requirement may be waived in some cases, such as emergency and short-term assistance);

iv) provide written permission to the administering authority to verify any statement made in the application and any supporting documents concerning financial resources or any other circumstance of the household; and

v) agree to report any change in circumstances which might affect eligibility or the amount of assistance to which the household is entitled, such as the death or departure of a family member or additional income from work or other sources.



Residence in a particular jurisdiction is not a condition of eligibility for social assistance; an applicant is only required to be physically present in a particular province at the time of application and while receiving assistance. However, in Nova Scotia, Ontario and Manitoba, municipalities are responsible for the delivery - and a portion of the cost - of short-term assistance; in these provinces, an applicant's period of residence is a determining factor only with respect to which municipality or level of government is responsible for the cost of any assistance granted to that person.

Categories of Beneficiaries

Provincial social assistance legislation includes some specific conditions of initial and continuing eligibility which apply to particular client groups; although some of these requirements are unique to a particular province, some general observations may be made concerning these groups.

The majority of social assistance clients are either aged or disabled persons, unemployed employables or single-parent family heads and their dependants. These four categories account for the majority of social assistance cases, with the remaining small proportion comprising a number of smaller target groups, such as transients, strikers, children living with a relative or guardian, and employed persons and their dependants.


i) Aged Persons

A person of advanced age may qualify for social assistance notwithstanding eligibility for benefits from federal and provincial programs for seniors. Financial hardship might be due to some age-related special needs, the number of dependants in the household or ineligibility for Old Age Security benefits. Provided the person meets legislated eligibility criteria, social assistance may be granted. Most provinces have established higher basic assistance benefit levels or other special considerations for persons beyond their middle years.


ii) Disabled Persons

An applicant requesting assistance because of illness or disability is generally required to submit a medical certificate indicating the level of impairment and the potential for rehabilitation. This requirement may be waived - at least in the initial determination of eligibility - where the disability is obvious (e.g., paraplegia, severe mental handicap). All provincial programs have design features affecting disabled persons, including one or more of the following: higher exemption levels on assets and income, higher basic assistance levels, special disability-related allowances, and supplementary coverage for health and medical services.


iii) Unemployed Employable Persons

Each provincial social assistance program includes a number of measures designed to promote the entry or re-entry into the active labour force of able-bodied unemployed applicants. These measures may include different exemption levels on assets and income than for the general caseload, reduced benefit levels and a wide range of employment support services and programs, some of which may be compulsory for applicants in this category. Some provinces may require unemployed employables, depending on their circumstances, to sign (and adhere to) an individualized contract which stipulates training and rehabilitation measures to be undertaken in order to regain financial independence. As a general rule, though, assistance may be granted to an unemployed employable applicant only when the administering authority is satisfied that:

a) any unemployment is due to circumstances beyond the person's control;

b) the person is willing to accept employment which he is physically capable of handling or to engage in academic upgrading, re-training or other measures to reach a state of job-readiness; and

c) the person is making reasonable efforts to secure employment.


iv) Single-Parent Families

In recognition of the financial responsibility of parents with respect to their children, regardless of the family situation, a sole-support parent may be required, as a condition of eligibility for social assistance, to either initiate legal proceedings against an absent spouse (or ex-spouse or putative father, as the case may be) respecting maintenance payments, or to subrogate that right to the government. Moreover, some provinces may consider single parents as employable - and require them to actively seek and accept reasonable employment - where the parent and dependent child(ren) are physically and mentally healthy and where the dependants have reached a certain age (stipulated in provincial legislation). Depending on their age, unwed mothers may be required, as a condition of eligibility for assistance, to participate in rehabilitation programs (including academic upgrading, life skills training, job orientation, etc.).

Financial Eligibility

Needs Test

Generally speaking, social assistance may be granted to any "person in need", i.e., anyone who is found to be unable to provide adequately for himself and any dependants on the basis of a test which takes into account the budgetary requirements and the financial resources available to that person and other members of his household to meet such requirements. This procedure is known as the "needs test" or "budget deficit method" of determining eligibility.

Assistance may be granted on the basis of a budget deficit or an insufficient budget surplus. A deficit occurs where regularly-recurring budgetary requirements exceed available financial resources, as determined in accordance with provincial legislation. Where a budget surplus (income remaining after the calculation of budgetary requirements) is inadequate to provide for a special need or an unexpected situation, assistance may also be granted. Thus, an applicant may be eligible for social assistance in an amount sufficient to cover only the cost of a particular medical requirement (e.g., diabetic supplies), a social service (e.g., family counselling) or other item of special need, where there is a likelihood of need if such assistance is withheld, and provided that the applicant meets other eligibility conditions.

It should be noted that the initial and continuing eligibility of a household for social assistance is based on the financial resources of all persons who are included in that household's budget for needs-testing.


Although each province defines "financial resources" differently, the following general provisions apply in all jurisdictions.


Certain exemptions are allowed with respect to actual and potential liquid assets and property of an individual or family applying for social assistance; any non-exempted assets are deemed to be available for current maintenance of the applicant and his dependants. Asset exemption levels in any given jurisdiction may vary in accordance with case classification (employable, disabled, etc.) and the size of the applicant's household; specific definitions of "liquid assets" and asset exemption levels are included in this report (see the table of contents). Homeowners applying for social assistance are not required to sell their principal residence and household effects (within reason) as a condition of eligibility. Persons applying for long-term assistance are usually granted a temporary exemption on property which exceeds allowable exemptions in order to allow for the sale of such property at a reasonable price. Assistance may be withheld, reduced or terminated where an applicant or recipient has dissipated, spent, or otherwise dealt with his assets or other property in an unreasonable manner, including assignment or disposition of property for insufficient compensation (in order to qualify for assistance).



Once a household's assets have been determined to be within the limits allowed, income from all sources is examined in the calculation of entitlement to social assistance. Whether through program regulations or policy guidelines, each province stipulates how specific types of income are considered, in order to ensure that all applications are treated in the same manner. Some types of income, such as workers' compensation benefits or an Old Age Security pension and, in most provinces, maintenance or alimony payments, are considered "unearned" and totally available for current maintenance. The net effect of unearned income is to reduce the amount of social assistance payable dollar-for-dollar. Other types of income, including the federal Child Tax Benefit, Goods and Services Tax Credit, payments to foster parents and special donations from charitable organizations are totally exempted in the calculation of financial resources; the household's social assistance entitlement is thus unaffected and its financial well-being improved. Where the source of income is employment, a partial exemption ("earnings exemption") may be granted on that income as an incentive for the individual or family head to gain or regain financial independence. In some jurisdictions, the earnings exemption provision applies only after initial eligibility has been established, i.e., an applicant's employment income may not be reduced using the earnings exemption in order to establish eligibility for social assistance. Partial exemptions may also be allowed in some provinces on income from other sources such as room and board or property rentals. Part-time employment earnings of dependent children attending school and irregular income or casual earnings of other members of the household are totally or partially exempted, depending on the province.

In the determination of financial eligibility, a welfare authority may include imputed income in a household's financial resources, even though that household is not actually receiving money from a particular source. The most common examples of income imputation are situations where the applicant is living rent-free in return for janitorial services or as a result of shelter payments made by an absent or deserting spouse directly to a landlord, or where an applicant's excess property (i.e., exceeding allowable exemption levels) is deemed to be producing regular income.

A person may apply for social assistance while awaiting benefits from another program (such as Unemployment Insurance) or a lump sum payment of unearned income. Because the needs test takes into account all current and anticipated income, including non-exempted benefits and payments covering retroactive periods, client households may be required to reimburse some or all of their social assistance covering these periods once they receive the benefit or payment. The recipient may be required to assign Unemployment Insurance or other benefits to the provincial department responsible for social assistance in an amount equal to the social assistance benefits received during or after the prescribed waiting period, or to repay such sums out of future social assistance benefits.


Budgetary requirements covered by basic social assistance include food, clothing, shelter (including utilities), household and personal needs, and (in some provinces) regularly-recurring items of special need. No two provinces use the same method of calculating social assistance benefit levels. Most jurisdictions use a "pre-added budget" approach, which combines non-shelter requirements under a single support allowance with shelter-related costs calculated separately at actual cost up to specified maxima. In Quebec and New-Brunswick, client households are paid a "global" budget ( including shelter) based on family size and category of assistance. Depending on the province, maximum shelter allowance levels may be established at the local/regional level (based on prevailing rates in that area) or for the entire province. Variables affecting the amount of shelter allowance payable may include the number of beneficiaries in any given household, the type of living arrangement (home ownership, tenancy, public housing, etc.), and the cost of fuel and utilities. In certain provinces, where actual shelter costs fall short of minimum levels set by regulation, the difference is deducted from the household's social assistance entitlement.

Each provincial authority is responsible for the indexation of social assistance benefit levels within its jurisdiction. Most provinces have chosen an "ad hoc" approach to rate adjustments; where provinces have included indexation provisions in their social assistance legislation, details are provided..

In addition to financial assistance for basic needs, a wide range of items of special need is also available, including allowances and services related to age, disability, employment, education, training and other special circumstances. All provinces also include provisions in their social assistance legislation respecting social services and health and institutional needs. Examples of relevant types of assistance may include comfort and/or clothing allowances for persons in need in designated special care facilities, payment of health insurance premiums (in premium-paying provinces) and ancillary health-related benefits such as prescription drugs, dental care, vision care, prostheses, etc.

Many provinces offer income supplementation or rehabilitation programs which are designed to improve the financial well-being of disadvantaged households.


Certain administrative aspects of social assistance programs are covered in the admin section of this report, including the legislative authority for each such program and the provincial government department responsible for its operation. The following paragraphs provide some general observations concerning selected administrative features included in this report.


Method of Payment

Social assistance benefits may be paid in a variety of ways - by cash, payroll or manual cheque issue, direct deposit to a client's banking institution, voucher or authorization to purchase, or direct payment to a third party vendor or supplier. Depending on the method(s) chosen by a particular province and the circumstances of each case, assistance may be granted on an ad hoc basis, every two weeks or monthly.


Case Review

As a condition of continuing eligibility for assistance, beneficiaries must report immediately any change in the circumstances of their household which would affect its entitlement to assistance or the amount thereof. In addition, each social assistance case is reviewed, usually once per year for long-term cases and more frequently for unemployed employable clients, either through a home visit by a social worker or a mail-in declaration (often appended directly to the social assistance cheque).


Recoveries and Reimbursement

Every province has established procedures and policies concerning the recovery of social assistance granted to a person who was not entitled thereto because of an unreported change in household income or other circumstances, accidental or wilful misrepresentation or fraud. In addition, certain forms of assistance granted by a province or a municipality may be conditional upon a formal agreement signed by the recipient to reimburse the government for such assistance.



In any province, an applicant or recipient is entitled to file a request for appeal where he is dissatisfied with a decision affecting his entitlement to social assistance. Some provinces have established limits on issues which may be formally appealed, while others allow an individual to question any determination bearing on his case. Appeal systems may consist of a provincial appeals board made up of several members appointed by the minister responsible for social services or a local review committee of a few community members, or both.



Where a recipient is incapable of managing his own affairs, the welfare authority may appoint a trustee to administer any assistance granted on behalf of that recipient; depending on the province, an honorarium may be granted to the trustee for services rendered.


1. This section is an excerpt from the Inventory of Income Security Programs in Canada (with changes as appropriate) to serve as a reference guide to this report.

2. The terms "provincial" and "province" include the Northwest Territories and Yukon (except where otherwise indicated).

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