May 8, 2020
Hon. Chrystia Freeland, Chair, Cabinet Committee on the federal response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
Hon. Bill Morneau, Minister of Finance
Hon. Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Public Services and Procurement and Accessibility
OPEN LETTER RE: COVID-19 SPOUSAL AND CHILD SUPPORT PAYMENTS
Dear Ministers Freeland, Qualtrough and Morneau,
We are writng in follow up to our April 16, 2020 letter expressing concern for single parents whose spousal and child support payments have been interrupted due to COVID-19.
The eligibility criteria for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) continue to exclude single parents who have seen their income dramatically lowered because of decreases in their ex-partner’s income due to COIVD-19. Another few weeks have gone by since we first brought this issue to your attention and the situation is becoming more desperate for these families with each passing day.
It is a major source of anxiety not only for the Canadians, predominantly women, who depend upon these support payments to make ends meet, but to their ex-partners as well, who want to see their children and former partners supported financially through the crisis and who also do not want to default on their court orders.
Our offices continue to hear from anxious families whose well-being is seriously threatened by this situation. For example, MP Kwan is working with a single mother of four school-aged children who previously received a combination of both child and spousal support from her children’s father. She is no longer receiving these payments, as the father has lost his job due to COVID-19. Furthermore, she is also unable to work. Her industry has shut down completely due to COVID-19 and she is required to stay at home with her children to help them with their schoolwork.
She did not earn at least $5,000 of employment income in the last year, so she does not qualify for the CERB, even though her spousal support payments are taxable income. As many provincial support programs are tied to CERB eligibility, she is also unable to receive support through the $1,000 B.C. Emergency Benefit program or the B.C. Hydro COVID-19 Relief Fund. Ensuring her eligibility for CERB would grant access to a network of support beyond the benefit itself.
MP Kwan followed up on this question directly with Minister Qualtrough on April 24, 2020 at the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills, and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities (HUMA). The Minister’s answer at that time was:
Thank you for that question. It's something I've been thinking a lot about as we've been looking at groups, in particular vulnerable groups.
For the group of women you're talking about—and I say this knowing that women are disproportionally in this situation—while they would have received, most likely because of low income, the additional goods and services tax credit we had, and while they are going to be receiving an additional increase through the Canada child benefit per child, that falls short of replacing income they would have had through spousal support payments.
I am looking into this. Although spousal support payments aren't technically considered employment income, it is something I'm turning my mind to because of the particular vulnerability of this group.
We were encouraged at the time that the Minister signalled an interest in finding a solution and have stood ready to assist in quickly developing a response. To date there is no evidence that the government has been meaningfully following up on this concern, with opposition parties or otherwise. Surely you can appreciate that the additional GST credit and Canada Child Benefit supplement, while welcome, are not enough for families who depend on spousal and child support to anchor their household budget.
In a spirit of collaboration, and to bring as quick an end to these trying circumstances as possible, we are proactively proposing two solutions for your immediate consideration:
Include spousal and child support payments in definition of ‘income’ for the purpose of CERB eligibility. This would make it possible for many people in this situation to access CERB benefits without delay.
For people who have qualified for CERB, they may nevertheless not be able to make rent and put food on the table without the additional income. This is especially true in jurisdictions like Vancouver and Toronto, where the cost of living is extremely high.
A program modelled on the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), that covered 75% of spousal and child support payments, might be the solution. Ex-partners unable to make their support payments due to COVID-19 could apply to the program and the benefit could be paid directly to those in need. As with the CEWS, ex- partners would be encouraged to pay the difference if able. If they are not able to cover the additional 25%, their payments could be deferred un1l they are back on a solid financial footing.
In this way, recipients of spousal and child support could receive much needed financial support and payers of that support could prove to courts that they are making every effort to honour their commitments.
These are two suggestions to quickly get financial assistance to people that are falling through the cracks. If there is a be:er way to do it, we are happy to discuss it. What we cannot accept is that these families be leg to twist in the wind.
We have already lost a few weeks in a situation where every day counts. We look forward to your prompt reply so that these families can get the good news they need without any further delay.
Leader, New Democratic Party of Canada
MP, Vancouver East