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Income assistance program for vulnerable Albertans lacks oversight, auditor general finds

Alberta's auditor general, Doug Wylie, flips through his latest report, which examines the performance of post-secondary institutions and the government's income support program. (Janet French/CBC - image credit)
Alberta's auditor general, Doug Wylie, flips through his latest report, which examines the performance of post-secondary institutions and the government's income support program. (Janet French/CBC - image credit)

Alberta's auditor general says improved oversight is needed to monitor a program that provides financial assistance to thousands of people living in poverty.

Auditor General Doug Wylie says the province doesn't publicly report whether people receiving income support benefits are getting enough money to meet their basic needs. A report his office released on Tuesday also says the income support program isn't tracking how people are faring in the medium or long term.

"You're going to be hearing more from this office about accountability," Wylie said in an interview on Tuesday.

He said that without gathering and analyzing better information, such as how many participants stayed employed in the long term, or found child-care for their kids, the province will have no idea whether the program is meeting its goals.

Alberta taxpayers deserve to know if the programs they pay for are effective, and the vulnerable people who rely on the program need assistance that's working, Wylie said.

The report also examines two other areas: the financial operations of Alberta's post-secondary institutions, and challenges in meeting the needs of patients living with chronic disease.

Income Support program

Alberta's Income Support program provides financial help to people who can't meet their basic needs for food, clothing and shelter.

Clients fall into two categories: "Expected to work" includes those who are looking for work, or are working but not earning enough to meet basic needs. "Barriers to full employment" clients have difficulty working due to hurdles such as chronic health issues.

A government spokesperson said as of February, there were 34,481 cases in the "expected to work" category, and 17,511 cases with barriers to full employment.

The program is administered by the department of Seniors, Community and Social Services, which paid out more than $580 million in Income Support payments in 2022-23.

The province has changed how it tracks client numbers over time. But the government is spending less on the benefits than it has in the past. In 2019-20, clients received nearly $807 million in support payments.

Last year, the province increased clients' monthly benefits to better keep pace with inflation. Monthly payments for individuals with barriers to full employment increased from $919 to $959, and from $790 to $824 for people who are expected to work.

The program supported an average of 46,536 cases per month in 2022-23, an increase of 7.3 per cent from the year before.

2019 issues

Wylie previously evaluated the Income Support program in a 2019 report that highlighted a series of case management issues and operational problems at the program.

Since then, the department introduced online applications, and substantially improved the turnaround time to vet those applications, the new report said.

Wylie said the department has promised to establish a new performance management framework for the program that would examine how the monthly payments compare to the cost of living in Alberta, and track how long people rely on the program.

But for now, Wylie said the department is providing no public evidence that the benefit amounts are enough for families to cover their basic expenses. And, it does not track whether people are staying employed in the long term, or returning to the program.

The government stopped reporting on how long clients were staying on income support in its 2021-22 annual report.

Susan Morrissey, executive director of the Edmonton Social Planning Council, says the experiences of people living in poverty suggest the benefit amounts are not enough for them to make ends meet. The problem was exacerbated in 2019 when the province stopped indexing the benefits to inflation, she said.

The government re-indexed the benefit last year, increasing payments by six per cent, but recipients can't catch up, she said.

As soon as a client hits an unexpected expense, such as a broken-down car or a rent hike, they begin to cut out medication and other essentials, she said.

"There's more and more people falling between the cracks," Morrissey said. "And it's pretty clear that the government is not able to keep up with these numbers. More people are struggling these days than ever before."

Failing to show evidence the benefit is enough for families to live on shows a lack of accountability, Morrissey said. She wonders how the department can improve the program if it isn't tracking its clients long term.

The press secretary for Seniors, Community and Social Services Minister Jason Nixon did not directly answer questions about the auditor's renewed recommendation on Tuesday, but pointed to the program's success in improving intake and goal tracking.

Post-secondary schools 

Wylie's audit also examined financial systems at post-secondary institutions across the province

Wylie issued "clean" audits for strong financial reporting for 19 of the 20 post-secondary institutions he examined, but said Olds College, located in the town about 60 kilometres southwest of Red Deer, has not completed its annual financial reporting.

Wylie also issued a new recommendation to the University of Calgary to ensure its former employees don't have access to its IT networks.

Financial risks associated with business ventures intended to bolster the budgets of Alberta's post-secondary schools has been an ongoing concern for Wylie. He first raised the issue in 2015 and called for improved oversight of these investments.

Ventures such as hotels, land trusts and bookstores pumped $481 million into campus coffers in 2022 but schools aren't properly managing the financial risks, Wylie found.

He pointed to his office's analysis of post-secondary institutions' annual reports. Although the government requires them to disclose the financial standing of their business ventures, 18 of 21 institutions didn't do that in their 2022 annual reports, the auditor found.

Wylie again called on the department of Advanced Education to ensure institutions follow provincial rules, and said post-secondary board members need training to properly oversee these ventures.