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U of Calgary study finds welfare rates rise in Ontario and drop everywhere else

CALGARY - A University of Calgary study has found that the percentage of people using social assistance is lower than it was four decades ago in every province, except Ontario.

Ron Kneebone and Katherine White of the School of Public Policy looked at social assistance data for people under the age of 65 from all of the provinces between 1969 and 2012.

Kneebone said he was surprised to find the rate had fallen in every province but one.

"The reliance on social assistance in Ontario is now higher than in any other province, except Newfoundland and Labrador. In every Maritime province, it's lower than it is in Ontario," said Kneebone.

The percentage of those receiving assistance in Ontario in 2012 was 7.6 per cent, up from the four per cent it was in 1969.

Newfoundland and Labrador's social assistance rate was nine per cent in 2012, but half what it was in 1969 at 18 per cent. Alberta had the lowest welfare rate in 2012 at just 3.2 per cent, down from five per cent in 1969.

Even Quebec, a province with a similar size and economic force as Ontario, has also seen its rate fall to seven per cent two years ago from just under 10 per cent in 1969.

The study doesn't look at the reasons for the disparity.

But Kneebone said the Ontario case begs the question of whether policy missteps have played a role in the province’s high social assistance usage rate. He said the question is whether its social assistance programs are too robust and encourage individuals to go on welfare as opposed to pursue other options.

"Social assistance is a provincial program and everyone has a different set of rules and regulations that determine if you can collect social assistance and for how long," he said.

"What someone needs to do is go through and figure out how Ontario's rules differ from what is done elsewhere."

It has not been a straight downward trend in the provinces over the years. During recessions, the numbers have risen dramatically but dropped off once recovery starts to take hold.

During the economic downturn in the 1990s, Ontario's social assistance rate hit nearly 15 per cent, while both Quebec and Nova Scotia were closing in on 13 per cent.

British Columbia was also near 12 per cent in the 90s, but Kneebone said its number dropped to 4.7 per cent in 2012.

"What drives people on and off of social assistance is the business cycle," said Kneebone. "We run into recessions and people go on. There's recovery and it goes off."

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