Error results in missed payments for social assistance clients

The Yukon government will be issuing cheques for a total of up to $700,000 to social-assistance clients, payment for an income exemption it mistakenly didn't take into account over the past eight years.

The Yukon government will be issuing cheques for a total of up to $700,000 to social-assistance clients, payment for an income exemption it mistakenly didn’t take into account over the past eight years.

Approximately 465 people are owed money, ranging from $100 to several thousands of dollars.

Health and Social Services Minister Mike Nixon apologized Monday for the error.

“We know that our social assistance policies and regulations are complex and we are in the process of simplifying them to benefit everyone,” he said in a statement.

Those affected were receiving both Yukon social assistance and the National Child Benefit (NCB). When the NCB was introduced by the federal government, all the provinces and territories considered it income for the purposes of determining social-assistance eligibility.

In 2008, the Yukon changed its social assistance regulations so that a maximum of $150 per month per family from the NCB could be declared as an income exemption. So if, for example, a person was receiving a $200 NCB cheque, they only would have to declare $50 as income.

Despite the change, department staff didn’t factor in the exemption going forward, said Health and Social Services spokeswoman Pat Living.

“It was never intentional,” she said. “The regulations are extremely complex. We have a very old system that is not quick to respond to change. We have significant staff changeover. So this has pointed out a need for ensuring that our staff are trained and we go over all the new regulations with them.”

The error was discovered back in April, when department staff were conducting a regular review of a single case file. Other files were then examined as well, and assistant deputy minister Brenda Lee Doyle was advised that the problem extended beyond just one file.

The department then sought a legal opinion, said Living. Once that was completed, Nixon was advised. That happened last week.

The error is “alarming,” said Kristina Craig, coordinator for the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition.

“People struggle enough when they are on social assistance, so having even less than they were eligible for… That’s very unfortunate. I know that every dollar counts when you don’t have many dollars.”

The department is still going through each individual file dating back to 2008 to determine who is owed what.

Not all social-assistance clients will receive a cheque. In some cases, the exemption was applied correctly—for instance, to people who were on social assistance and receiving the National Child Benefit, but who had other income coming in at the time, Living said.

And not all clients were on social assistance for the full eight years. Some may have only been receiving the funds for a few months at a time. That’s why the amount of money the government is issuing to clients will vary.

Living said cheques will start going out in the mail by the end of the month. The department will be using advertising and social media to notify people that this happened. It’s also able to track clients who have left the Yukon but are on social assistance in other jurisdictions, she said.

“This is their money,” Living said. “We owe it to them. So we are going to do our utmost to find them.”

Craig suggested the government work with community organizations like the anti-poverty coalition to track people down. In some cases, it may not be easy.

“If you’re of no fixed address, it’s hard to put a cheque in the mail,” she said.

According to the department, recipients won’t have to declare this money as income for the purposes of social assistance, because it’s replacing benefits they should have received at the time. It is taxable income.

Since 1998, the National Child Benefit has provided monthly payments to low-income families with children across the country.

On July 1, the new Canada Child Benefit will come into effect. It’s a monthly tax-free payment for families with children under the age of 18, and it will replace the NCB and two other child benefits. The federal government has said it will lift thousands of children out of poverty.

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