Hundreds of thousands of Canadians may be missing out on government funding meant to help cope with rising living costs because housing and dental benefits introduced last year were “tragicly” taken, a new report says.
The analysis by David MacDonald, a senior economist at the Canadian Center for Alternative Policy, assessed both benefits, and how much the federal government actually spent on the measures.
He compared the federal government’s estimate in the fall economic statement with the most recent data available on his website in late March.
Macdonald found that only 44 per cent of people who might have been eligible for the Canada Housing Benefit’s one-time top-up actually received it, while just over half received the Canada Dental Benefit.
“These are very low acceptance rates. We should learn from them so that next time we have a much higher acceptance rate,” MacDonald said in an interview.
The Housing Benefit provides $500 to low-income renters. Applications close on March 31st.
The federal dental benefit, introduced in the fall, provides up to $650 for each family with a child under 12 years of age for dental care. It’s the first step in creating a national dental care plan, a key promise in the Liberals’ confidence and supply agreement with the NDP.
It’s becoming more common for the federal government to administer benefits directly through the CRA to get money into people’s hands faster, but MacDonald said his analysis suggests a change is needed.
MacDonald attributed the low numbers to several factors, including a more “intrusive” application process compared to the Canada Emergency Response Grant. For example, housing benefits require applicants to submit rent receipts or a letter from their landlord.
He said the federal government could have eased application requirements, or at least made the programs better known to Canadians.
“We can email people below a certain income threshold and say, ‘Hey, you might qualify for this program,'” MacDonald said, noting that the CRA has tax return data that can guide the effort.
In a written statement, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation said it and the CRA launched a series of communications and outreach campaigns to make people aware of the benefit. It also said the estimate of how many people would be eligible, presented when the program was announced, was “a ceiling” and reaching that figure would be challenging “given the voluntary nature of the program”.
Low adoption means the federal government spends less than what is allocated for these measures.
The fall economic report estimated that housing benefits would cost about $1.2 billion, but the final figure came in at just under $400 million, meaning only a third of allotted funds went to low-income renters.
Dental benefits were estimated to cost $352 million in the 2022-23 fiscal year, but only $156.3 million, or about 44 per cent, had been paid out by the end of March.
The Federal Government estimates that 500,000 children will benefit from the support, which will be provided in two phases until 30 June 2024.
The federal government has touted both measures as part of its affordability plan, with Treasurer Chrystia Freeland touting the benefits as targeting those who need it most.
But new data suggests many Canadians may be left behind as the cost of living tightens.
“The government has failed to get this money into the hands of those who need it most, who will have the hardest time affording higher prices because of inflation. It’s a disgrace,” MacDonald said.
Freeland’s office did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
—Nojoud Al Mallees, Canadian Press
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