Canadians acknowledge the benefit of the emergency grant program during the COVID-19 pandemic, but want to see more done to combat fraudulent claims, a new poll suggests.
The Ipsos poll, conducted exclusively for Global News between July 8 and 10, found that while the vast majority of Canadians believe the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) has helped prevent financial disaster for many (86 per cent), there are increasing concerns about fraud and misuse.
The poll found that 63 per cent of respondents agree that the CERB is being misused by many Canadians. It also found that 85 per cent believe those who fraudulently collected the CERB should be fined.
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“People recognize that there’s an emergency, but they want rules associated with how the government aids people in an emergency situation,” said Darrell Bricker, public affairs CEO with Ipsos.
“If someone has gone outside of the rules and did it in a knowing way, which is what fraud would be, the public doesn’t have much tolerance for that. They know it’s a lot of money. They know taxpayers are paying for it. So, as a result, they expect everybody to behave in an appropriate way.”
The $500-a-week CERB has helped millions of Canadians who have seen their incomes decrease or disappear due to the COVID-19 pandemic but, as the country’s situation has improved, calls for adjustments to the program have grown.
The Trudeau government, at one point, considered introducing fines and penalties for fraudulent CERB claims, but the proposed adjustment to the program never made it through the House of Commons. It’s now effectively frozen at first reading with no clear path forward.
Desire for CERB changes
Over the past two months, provinces and territories have rolled out phased plans to restart their economies. Many industries and sectors once shuttered are beginning to operate again, in varying capacities and under new health protocols. This means many Canadians have started returning to work.
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As part of the Ipsos poll, respondents were asked whether they believed the CERB has allowed people to not go back to work — even when they should. The overwhelming majority agreed.
Forty-eight per cent felt strongly about it and 37 per cent somewhat agreed while 11 per cent somewhat disagreed and four per cent strongly disagreed.
Bricker said this likely reflects a desire from Canadians to see a change in how these benefits are administered as the country reopens.
“Most Canadians believe this program was the right response to the emergency situation. They don’t see it as the right response for the longer term,” he said.
While some business owners have said they are struggling to lure staff back to work, it’s not clear how many people are opting to continue to receive the benefits even though they can return to their jobs.
The Liberals are expected to make changes to the $80-billion CERB program. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on June 16 that changes made to the CERB would be based on the economy, as well as the progression of the virus and what other countries do with their national support programs.
Their hope is to transition those who were on the CERB to the wage subsidy program.
How the CERB might eventually be wound down is still not entirely clear.
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Parisa Mahboubi, senior policy analyst at the C.D. Howe Institute, said reforming the program is the next necessary step, but it has to be done in a way that encourages those who still need it to continue to use it while those who can work are compelled to return to their jobs.
She said it will be complicated since it will depend on the state of the economy in September when the first round of CERB recipients exhaust their aid.
“We know that not all industries and sectors will be operating as usual, as pre-COVID, and we’re still expecting high unemployment,” she said.
“It was needed in the beginning… But now, the design doesn’t go hand-in-hand with the reopening of the economy.”
Mahboubi is a part of the institute’s Crisis Working Group on Household Income and Credit Support, which has been analyzing the CERB. Mahboubi and her team believe a transition to the employment insurance (EI) program should occur once CERB ends.
“At the same time, we need to think about changes to the EI program,” she said, noting that many CERB recipients are not eligible for EI.
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“We need to broaden the requirements, making sure some individuals who deserve to receive financial benefit can receive it.”
The decision to end or extend the program is where the results of the Ipsos poll vary. For each response, there appears to be a “generational divide,” Bricker said.
The divide is most clear on the topic of extending the CERB.
When asked whether the program should be extended “for as long as unemployment remains high,” 73 per cent of Canadians aged 18-34 agreed while only 49 per cent of those 55 and older did. More than half of respondents aged 35-54 agreed.
Asked whether the CERB should be discontinued “at the earliest possible opportunity,” 43 per cent of Canadians aged 18 to 34 said they agreed compared to 58 per cent of Canadians aged over 55.
“The older population, probably more stable, maybe working from home, maybe retired with a fair income — they’re saying, ‘I don’t want to see this extended,’” Bricker said.
Responses were slightly more equal on the topic of CERB misuse and fraud.
On the question of misuse of the program, all age groups were equal, hovering between 62 and 64 per cent. Same with those who agreed the program has deterred people from going back to work when they can. For older Canadians it was 75 per cent, for younger Canadians it was 70 per cent.
For those in support of fines or penalties, 90 per cent of people aged 55 and over agreed, while 78 per cent of those aged 18 to 34 agreed.
Trudeau has said the proposed crackdown on fraudulent claims won’t penalize people who made “honest mistakes,” but Mahboubi said there’s still a risk.
She said the punishment might deter people for the wrong reasons.
“Someone may have applied, but wasn’t really clear about the requirements,” she said. “So the type of punishment is really important. If it’s really harsh, going forward, someone who needs and is eligible for the benefit might be fearful of making a mistake.”
She said the language about the misuse of the program “wasn’t really clear” from the start — “it was based on trust and verification” — so any changes made to the program from this point on must be clear.
— With files from the Canadian Press
This Ipsos poll was conducted between July 8 and July 10, 2020.
For this survey, a sample of 1,000 Canadians from the Ipsos I-Say panel was interviewed. Quotas and weighting were employed to ensure that the sample’s composition reflects that of the Canadian population according to census information.
The precision of Ipsos online polls is measured using a credibility interval. In this case, the poll is accurate to within ± 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, of what the results would be had all Canadian adults been polled. The credibility interval will be wider among subsets of the population.
All sample surveys and polls may be subject to other sources of error, including, but not limited to coverage error, and measurement error.
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