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Feds not doing enough to make sure hard-to-reach groups access benefits: auditor

Report says government not doing enough to make sure the money goes where it’s needed
People cast their shadows as they walk in Toronto on Monday, Feb. 27, 2012. Canada’s auditor general has released a report on access to benefits among hard-to-reach populations.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

The government is still struggling to get key supports like the Canada Child Benefit into the hands of hard-to-reach groups like those living on First Nations, and isn’t doing enough to make sure the money goes where it’s needed, the auditor general reported Tuesday.

The auditor looked at efforts to increase uptake of the child benefit, Guaranteed Income Supplement, Canada Workers Benefit and Canada Learning Bond and found the government falls short of making sure vulnerable people have access.

Most of the programs require recipients to file income taxes, which can be difficult to navigate for some people like seniors, youth, people on First Nations, and newcomers — particularly for those who live in remote areas or have a language barrier.

The Canada Revenue Agency and Employment and Social Development Canada spent more than $18 million in the last fiscal year on targeted outreach to help those people access the benefits they’re entitled to, but the auditor said the government doesn’t have an effective way to measure whether those efforts have had any effect.

“They could not measure any increases in the rate of benefit take‑up for targeted groups over time, or in related impacts such as increased tax filing by those groups over time,” the auditor’s report said.

“Without measuring these types of impacts of outreach efforts that targeted specific groups or locations, the department and agency were not always able to show that money spent on these activities helped remove barriers and increase benefit take-up rates in targeted populations.”

The government doesn’t even have a good sense of how great the uptake gap is because they don’t account for people who haven’t filed their income tax, the auditor found.

In 2017, the CRA estimated more than 10 per cent of Canadians who were supposed to file their income tax return didn’t do so, which means there may be far more people who aren’t receiving the benefits than they know.

The auditor’s report said the government doesn’t have a comprehensive plan to accurately measure uptake. The government invested in data collection in 2018 and ESDC launched a strategy to measure uptake in 2021, but the auditor found no tangible progress had been made.

The auditor also found the departments lacked co-ordination when it came to helping people who needed a more hands-on approach to applying for the benefits.

In one case, ESDC launched a pilot project to reach out directly to people who have been referred by community groups as needing extra help.

Someone from the department could help them apply, for example, to the Guaranteed Income Supplement but they would be able to help with programs related to the CRA.

While that person may have received the income supplement, they would still be out of luck when it came to filing their income tax to access other benefits.

“This finding matters because asking society’s most vulnerable individuals to meet the complex requirements of two separate federal organizations may constitute a barrier to receiving a given benefit,” the report said.

The government says it agrees to all three of the auditor’s recommendations to break down silos between departments, improve how they measure uptake of the benefits and the effect of their outreach and streamline the process for applicants.

—Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

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