By Sebastian Bron
Hamilton Spectator, May 10, 2021
For Dayna Sparkes, budgeting for finances at the end of the month often feels like tiptoeing through a room filled with trip wires.
A paid internet bill could mean a default on the hydro bill. A healthy stock of groceries could mean less hand sanitizers or clean masks. A fulfilled rent payment could mean a write-off on any leisure-related activities or products.
This conundrum – of picking and choosing what gets paid and what doesn’t – has long been a challenge for the mother of four young children, whose primary source of income is a monthly Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) check of just over $1,000.
But it’s a challenge that has been greatly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been incredibly stressful,” said Sparkes. “There’s been a few times when I’ve sat down, looked at my budget, looked at how much money we have, and said, ‘Well, this month I can’t pay hydro because our internet bill is much higher.’ But companies aren’t forgiving to that.”
Sparkes is one of hundreds of thousands of people in the province who rely on disability or social assistance benefits to live.
That demographic bore the brunt of the financial distress Ontarians incurred during the pandemic, according to a recent McMaster University survey that studied the economic impacts of COVID-19 on employed and unemployed workers.
The survey, which garnered more than 1,200 responses, found that those receiving federal or provincial financial assistance amid the health crisis still struggled to make ends meet.
A third of the respondents on Ontario Works (OW) or ODSP received less than $1,000 per month in assistance and 88 per cent received less than $1,500 per month.
More than half of OW/ODSP recipients reported they were falling behind on bills, and four in five OW/ODSP recipients said they felt little-to-no impact of the new government supports during the pandemic.
That latter rate is relatively unsurprising, said Dr. Peter Graefe, an associate professor of political science at McMaster and one of four researchers who conducted the study.
Many of the respondents in the survey who are on OW/ODSP didn’t qualify for the federal Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB), Graefe said, which pays as much as three times more than disability or social assistance.
Having that extra benefit – even if it’s just a few hundred dollars – could make a world of difference, said Sparkes, who didn’t receive CERB.
“It means the difference between the hydro being paid and the internet being paid,” she said. “The higher-ups (in government) aren’t thinking of actual people. That money from CERB, a couple hundred extra bucks a month, could make a big difference for us.”
Jodi Dean went on CERB early in the pandemic after her husband, a retail worker, was sent home due to lockdown measures.
“Without it, we wouldn’t be able to pay our mortgage,” said Dean. “In that circumstance, it was absolutely needed for us. But what made it difficult was we didn’t have enough to put away for taxes. It cut our GST, our trillium and our child tax benefits.”
According to the Mac study, the maximum $2,000 monthly payout from CERB represents just two-thirds of the median Canadian income.
More than 15 per cent of respondents on CERB reported they struggled to keep up with bills, and nearly 45 per cent reported increases to their personal debts.
Dean said her family “wouldn’t get by without CERB,” but the absence of taxable income meant premediated changes to other parts of their budget.
“We definitely still had to make cuts,” she said. “We got hit hard with the taxes.”
While CERB recipients struggled less than those on OW/ODSP, Graefe said the findings of the survey show federal pandemic assistance wasn’t a be-all, end-all solution to maintaining financial stability
“If the median income in Canada is $36,000 a year, and you’re at that average, CERB is just two-thirds of it – but you still have your regular expenses that you had before like rent and food,” he said.
“It’s a different kind of pinch because people had to adjust to a significant loss of income, whereas people on (OW/ODSP) have always felt that pressure.”