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It’s time to build better benefits
20 December 2022
The federal government has recently rolled out a number of timely and very welcome benefit initiatives to help Canadians struggling with the surging cost of living. These initiatives include:
interim Canada Dental Benefit
to help lower dental costs for eligible families earning under $90,000 per year. (This is a temporary program while the government works to create a long-term version).
one-time GST Credit payment
to help support Canadians hit hardest by inflation. This payment will double the GST Credit amount eligible individuals and families receive over a six month period.
one-time top-up to the Canada Housing Benefit
to help low-income renters with their housing cost. Eligible recipients can receive a tax-free one-time payment of $500.
As welcome as these initiatives are, we know that many people with low incomes find it challenging to keep abreast of new benefit information and to navigate the many steps that are often involved in successfully accessing a new benefit. Lack of clarity about how a new benefit might interact with other benefits individuals are receiving can cause many people to hesitate about applying. As well, one in five people with low incomes do not tax file and will consequently miss out on potential new income from benefits like these. Some individuals are afraid to tax file for fear they owe the government money, others are not aware they are eligible for more income benefits through the tax system, and still others encounter personal, institutional and systemic barriers that prevent them tax filing successfully.
For all of these reasons, Prosper Canada launched the
in January 2022 to help people with low incomes to overcome barriers to accessing benefits they are eligible for but not receiving.
This bilingual, plain language, and easy-to-use online tool helps individuals to quickly identify benefits they may be eligible for, provides them with clear information on how to access each benefit and, for those who need some additional help, provides a directory of organizations people can go to in their region for assistance tax filing and applying for benefits.
Because people with disabilities often encounter the most challenging benefit application processes of all, we also developed an accompanying
Disability Benefits Compass
which provides more in-depth practical guidance for people applying for key disability benefits.
If you, clients of your organization, or someone else you know is interested in learning more about the new federal benefit initiatives or just making sure you/they are not missing out on other benefits, we encourage you to visit these benefit navigation tools.
Tools like these are necessary though because governments often design and administer income benefits in ways that do not work for more vulnerable target users – typically the people who need these benefits the most.
Government officials may be working to tight timelines they do not control; they may lack in depth knowledge of the needs, capabilities and life context of their target users; and they may lack the training and skills to apply user-centred design principles and processes. All of these flaws result in poorly designed and administered benefit programs that fail to reach a substantial portion of their target beneficiaries, often resulting in unnecessary hardship for hundreds of thousands of Canadians who need these resources to meet basic needs.
Ideally, our governments would invest more time and effort when programs are initially being developed to incorporate the perspectives and experience of target users. This would help to optimize benefit take-up right from the start and reduce the need for costly workarounds later when programs miss their mark. It’s never too late to fix flaws in existing programs but, it is much harder and costlier than designing a better program right from the start.
In a more perfect world, our governments would:
establish clear accessibility principles to govern the design and administration of benefits;
devote more time at the front end to engage end-users in iteratively co-designing, developing and testing new programs;
set up robust feedback mechanisms to drive continuous improvement efforts once programs are launched; and
report publicly annually on the success of each program, challenges, and proposed changes to address these.
We encourage the federal government to use these new benefit initiatives as a timely opportunity to learn more about how low-income and vulnerable Canadians experience particular benefit application and administration processes (what works and what doesn’t) and to use their findings to improve these programs, while also capturing key lessons they can apply to the design and administration of other benefits – old and new.
It's easy to forget that benefit programs are more than just plans, rules and numbers. To the end beneficiary, they mean food, shelter, warmth, health, dignity, a sense that they matter, and the freedom to make everyday choices that most of us take for granted.
Every poorly designed benefit robs tens of thousands of Canadians of these most basic precious rights. We need to do better. It’s time we built better benefits that reach those who need them most.