Federal data shows $82 billion paid out over program's lifetime between March and October
Over the course of its lifetime, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) was claimed more predominantly by people living in urban areas than rural ones, according to a new analysis of data obtained from the federal government.
The CERB program, which was extended to certain Canadians whose incomes had been hit by the impact of COVID-19, paid out $500 weekly when it was launched in late March last year before the Liberal government amended the program in April to set a monthly income threshold of $1,000.
By the time it was phased out in October, the program had paid out almost $82 billion to 8.9 million who saw less income because they lost their jobs or got their hours reduced, according data obtained by the Canadian Press from Employment and Social Development Canada through the Access to Information Act.
Using population counts from the 2016 census, the Canadian Press extrapolated what percentage of the population over age 15 in each are of the country got CERB in any given four-week pay period.
During the first four-week wave of CERB payments, 6.5 million people benefited from the initial $500-a-week payments, representing more than one in five Canadians over age 15. Higher proportions of the populations in cities relied on CERB compared to rural parts of the country, according to the analysis.
“As cities relied more on accommodations, tourism and food as drivers of economic growth, the more they would have been sideswiped by the pandemic, and larger centres have a higher concentration of jobs in these areas,” David Macdonald, senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, told the Canadian Press. “More rural areas of the country and certain cities that have a higher reliance on, say, natural resources wouldn't have been hit as hard.”
CERB claims appeared to moderate in the second month with 4.4 million recipients, marking the largest month-to-month change, and declined even further to 3.7 million in the third. By the time the CERB was succeeded by a trio of new recovery benefits and a rebooted employment-insurance system, the number of recipients had declined to nearly 2.3 million
Throughout its rollout, the CERB program was a source of confusion for many Canadians, either because of lack of clarity surrounding the application process or the eligibility rules. Late last year, the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) sent out letters to thousands of individuals asking that they pay back the CERB benefits they received, as it turned out they weren’t eligible or had collected more than they were entitled to.
Last week, the federal government declared that self-employed Canadians who had mistakenly collected CERB benefits because they were not correctly informed about the income eligibility criteria would not have to pay their benefits back, as long as they satisfied all other eligibility criteria. But as pointed out by policy experts, that clarification created a glaring inconsistency as it effectively “rewards” self-employed Canadians who incorrectly collected the benefits, while shutting the door on those who correctly did not collect CERB.
Amid the continuing lack of clarity, D'Arcy McDonald, senior vice president of deposits, Investments and Payments at Scotiabank, advises Canadians who’ve been asked to repay CERB to consider filing taxes early, which he said will help clear up whether they still owe the government any money and give them time to reduce their amount owing for regular income taxes through a last-minute RRSP contribution.
“Watch the government communications closely, because I think those sands are still shifting,” McDonald told CTV News. “But if you did receive that uncomfortable letter, you probably need to think about immediately filing your taxes to figure out what your obligations are to the government."