Research Bulletin November 2018: Income Supports and Services

This month’s research bulletin focuses on research and reports related to income and disability supports, poverty reduction, and welfare-related service delivery.

The articles and reports below discuss income supports for the working poor, asset-based poverty reduction, supporting employment and income assistance recipients, and the perils of downloading the cost of welfare reform. They also include a number of recommendations and implications valuable for a wide range of audiences—service providers, community leaders, policy makers, and politicians.

  1. Income Support Policies for the Working Poor (2017, GER)
  2. Case Study: Shifting from Needs to Assets in New Brunswick (2018, CAN)
  3. Paying the Price of Welfare Reform (2018, AUS)
  4. Working Within the Rules: Supporting Employment for Income Assistance Recipients (2018, CAN)
  5. Call Wait Times for Income and Disability Assistance (2018, CAN)

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1. Income Support Policies for the Working Poor

This paper examines what governments in the EU (and some US states) are doing to support workers on low wages. The authors assess the policy measures currently in place to determine whether or not they guarantee an adequate disposable income to working families (taking into account minimum wages, social security contributions, taxes, and other benefits).

They find that, in spite of increased efforts over the past decade, disposable incomes of certain types of minimum wage workers still fall well below the EU at-risk-of-poverty thresholds in many countries. Single earners with dependent children are identified as a group especially at risk of poverty.

The report concludes with a number of options for improving policies and practices. While minimum wages still constitute an important foundation of income protection for workers, they argue that there are limits to what minimum wages can do to prevent in-work poverty. Together with policies that facilitate and support dual earners (particularly the employment of the caring partner in the household), child benefits, in-work benefits, and tax credits will need to be components of effective policy packages in the future.

2. Shifting from Needs to Assets in New Brunswick

This study highlights the benefits of a systemic shift from a needs-based framework to a strengths-focused, asset-based approach to poverty reduction. At its core, this unique initiative recognized that “poverty” is more complex than a lack of income—it is also about active participation. The report explored the way New Brunswick endeavoured to weave a more integrated social fabric as the foundation for addressing poverty.

This asset-based community development started with what’s strong, rather than what’s wrong. Instead of analyzing community deficits and seeking to solve problems by employing outside programs and services, the process began with the community. Residents were brought together to identify what they wanted done, to map the strengths that already existed, and then to determine how they could make changes based on where support was most desired.

An important factor in the success of these (and future) initiatives is identified as the ability and willingness to align both provincial and local strategies, skills, and resources.

3. Paying the Price of Welfare Reform

Australia is in the midst of a major reform to the way the income support system is delivered. This involves automation and a move towards self-sufficiency for citizens, as well as changes to eligibility criteria, assessment processes, and compliance frameworks.

This research examines in detail the impact of these changes on both clients and staff of community service organizations. The authors show that such welfare reform may very well be leading to cost savings for the Department of Human Services, but those costs are being shifted to vulnerable people and the community services that support them—it is they that are paying the price of welfare reform.

The report puts forth seven recommendations worth considering regardless of jurisdiction. These include (#4) considering the provision of specialist advocacy services to assist those who are struggling to navigate the system, (#6) examining the assumptions underpinning welfare reform to more accurately reflect the reality of peoples’ lives, and (#7) committing to an increase in payment levels to ensure people have a minimum acceptable standard of living.

4. Working Within the Rules: Supporting Employment for Income Assistance Recipients

In this report, BC’s Ombudsperson examines a case in which The Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, in its administration of income assistance, favoured its own policy rather than following the law—even after it was told on two occasions that its decisions were not consistent with existing laws.

Given the power imbalance between government and individual citizens—including disparate expertise, access to information and legal advice—the authors argue that the onus is on government ministries and not service recipients to ensure that decisions are consistent with legal authority.

The examination results in a number of recommendations: that the ministry follow the law relating to earnings exemptions, that it amend the relevant policy to accord with the law, and that the ministry adopts new guidelines to respond effectively where and when its own staff identify recurring or systemic legal errors.

5. Holding Pattern: Call Wait Times for Income and Disability Assistance

This report examines how and why BC’s Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction has been struggling to provide timely and effective service to the public as it shifts its service from focusing on in-person delivery to telephone and online “service channels.”

According to the report, these service issues are compounded by the fact that income and disability assistance recipients face challenges arising from their life circumstances, including poverty, homelessness, health issues and disability. These issues have prompted questions to be asked as to whether the ministry’s shift to online and telephone service channels is appropriate.

It becomes apparent very quickly that the ministry has been under resource pressures that have restricted its options as it sought to manage the service crisis it found itself in. However, the report makes nine recommendations to address issues resulting from both those cost pressures and the response to them. These include new service standards, significant new staff positions, increased reporting, and the phasing out of certain practices and strategies.