The Federal Government has released at least 20 different measures to support individuals through the impacts of COVID-19 and the public health response. These have included changes in the rules for existing supports such as EI, increases in programs such as child benefit and new benefits such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). But there are some people who are falling between the cracks. In The USA some commentators are calling them the Forgotten.
The measures produced have been flexible and nimble when evidence showed that people were being missed. For instance, the eligibility rules changed so that people could get CERB even if they still had some income.
But, Canada is complex and producing bespoke benefits and rules to fit every circumstance for people in need is difficult.
Wellesley Institute did a rapid survey of over 500 stakeholder groups working to support vulnerable people across Canada. It covered the accessibility of recently announced benefits and income and support programs.
Difficulties in accessing the new benefits and supports were not just because of eligibility requirements. There were also logistical and administrative issues. Some people had never heard of the benefits because they were in marginalized communities. Others, did not have access to the internet or were not computer literate. Some said there were long telephone waits which ate up their pay-as-you-go minutes. Others did not speak or read English or French and could not apply online or understand the telephone instructions. There were also fears that applying for the new benefits would result in their existing benefits being cut and they would be worse off.
But all these issues are more likely to impact certain groups in the community.
Robert Reich, the economist and political commentator who served four Presidents, has suggested that in America there are four new classes emerging because of COVID-19. These are Remotes, Essentials, Unpaid and Forgotten. This taxonomy is useful when considering who is being left out of COVID-19 benefits even though the term Forgotten in emotive.
The Remotes are professional, managerial and technical workers who are able to work at home.
The Essentials are emergency response workers, healthcare workers and others like who keep the economy going like warehouse workers, truck drivers and people who work in supermarkets.
The Unpaid are those who have been furloughed, have become unemployed or lost a large amount of self-employed income.
The Forgotten are groups such as people with mental health problems living in group homes, people in institutions, those who live in shelters or are homeless, refugees, immigrants and newcomers.
The “Forgotten” are the groups facing the most problems with the COVID-19 system. They are people who need more support because the social support sector is finding it difficult to cope with the strain. They are the people that ads on TV do not reach. They are the people least able to access computers and the internet and less likely to have an address to be sent information. They are getting the least financial support.
They are also the least able to access public health advice, and are least able to self-isolate and social distance.
And we know what happens next.
Better testing, contact tracing, and ensuring there are hotel rooms for test-positive homeless people to self-isolate, are important steps. But the underlying problem is poverty. Getting people access to the Federal benefits they are entitled to, and developing new supports to meet the needs of the Forgotten are the basis of the solution. The most common response in the Wellesley survey was the need for a universal basic income. But also common was a call for Government to train and arm the non-profit sector with the means to get people the benefits they need.
If we do not properly support our most vulnerable they will be at higher risk of COVID-19. And that means everyone will be at higher risk of COVID-19. Our economy will open later than it could, or will open and then close again. We are all connected. The States may have coined the term the Forgotten, but for all our sakes we need to make sure we do not import it.