One-fifth of on-reserve families to miss out on child benefit boost: Duclos

Canada's Federal Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos

OTTAWA — Thousands of Indigenous families living on-reserve will miss out on a boost to the Canada Child Benefit when the more lucrative payments hit parents’ bank accounts Friday, even as Liberals put on a national show to promote their signature family benefit.

Almost every eligible family in the country receives the monthly, means-tested benefit, but take-up rates for families on-reserve consistently lag behind the wider population — largely chalked up to lower tax filing rates among Indigenous families.

Tax returns are the basis for calculating payments to families.

The government now estimates one in every five Indigenous families on-reserve who should qualify are not receiving the benefit, an improvement from two years ago when about half of families on-reserve missed out on it.

Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos called the issue a key focus for the government over the last year of its mandate, saying the benefit is missing too many children from a population that tends to have larger families, and is more likely to experience poverty.

“These families need and deserve the (child benefit) even more than the average Canadian family,” Duclos said in an interview this week.

“We’ve got to improve on delivery of the (child benefit) and I would say this is the number one priority in the months to come.”

Priority number one on Thursday for the Liberals was to promote the benefit.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited an Ontario summer camp for children from low-income families, Duclos went to four different spots in Ontario, and five other cabinet ministers fanned out for public events. All told, some 150 Liberal MPs were scheduled to be talking about the benefit in their communities and more promoting it online as its value is set to increase with inflation.

The Liberals hadn’t planned to peg the value of the benefit to inflation until 2020, but they had a change of mind after an outcry from anti-poverty groups and a critical report from Parliament’s spending watchdog.

Indexing the benefit to inflation will increase program spending to about $25.1 billion by 2022, from the $23.7 billion budgeted for this fiscal year.

The Conservative critic on the file said the Liberals should have indexed the benefit right away like other benefit programs so the payment didn’t lose its buying power as prices went up. Karen Vecchio said some families may feel the extra money still doesn’t go far enough with the high cost of housing, or as costs rise for goods and services subjected to the Liberals’ carbon pricing scheme.

She also called the in-person and social media promotion Thursday of the child benefit “government showboating.”

“This is all getting ready for (the election in) October 2019 and that’s why they’re doing these big shows.”

Duclos rejected the idea that the Liberals were trying to buy votes heading into next year’s federal election — an accusation the previous Conservative government faced when it increased the value of its universal child benefit weeks ahead of the start of the 2015 campaign.

He said the government had long ago signalled its decision to increase the value of the benefit with inflation beginning this month, more than one year before an election, because it was good policy.

“The policy proved to be so effective and popular that we ended up understanding that indexing it in 2018 would be both better from a policy perspective and better from an impact perspective,” Duclos said.

A key goal of the benefit was to reduce the number of children living in poverty. Recently released data from the national statistics office show there was a decline in child poverty rates between 2015 and 2016 that coincided with the introduction of the Canada Child Benefit in July 2016.

Statistics Canada found that in 2016, some 1.37 million children under age 18 lived in families considered to be low-income, based on a special measurement of poverty for families, a decline of 81,570 from 2015.

NDP families critic Brigitte Sansoucy said the child benefit itself simply isn’t enough to tackle child poverty. Indexing the benefit to inflation, she said, was “the least this government could do to help families in Canada.”

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Jordan Press, The Canadian Press