Pro-life politicians and advocates for the poor are speaking out about the practice of provincial clawbacks of federal child benefits. In provinces such as Ontario, the amount of a national supplement intended for children receiving social assistance is removed from their provincial welfare cheques. Furthermore, similar action countering the coming federal childcare allowance has not been ruled out.

The Canada Child Tax Benefit, or CCBT, was introduced in 1997 and replaced what used to be called the “baby bonus.” This basic benefit is now received by about 80 per cent of Canadian families with children.

About 40 per cent of Canadian families with children, who are low income, also receive a supplement to the CCBT called the National Child Benefit Supplement or NCBS. However, most of the latter supplement amount is then removed from the social assistance cheques in provinces like Ontario — an average deduction of $115 per child per month.

Effectively, this means that children of the “working poor” directly receive the NCBS, but children of social assistance recipients do not. Most of the money clawed back from welfare recipients goes to fund programs such as child care, which tend not to benefit the children on social assistance. In addition, parents receiving welfare would often choose to spend the money differently, if it were left in their hands.

Member of Parliament Cheryl Gallant (Conservative, Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke, Ont.) has risen repeatedly in the House to oppose what she considers to be an injustice to the poor. She recalls, “The (federal) Liberal party oversaw a deal in 1997 which resulted in the clawback of the national child benefit supplements from the pockets of some of our neediest children.”

She continued: “The NCBS program was supposed to reduce poverty among low-income families with children. Negotiations between the federal and provincial governments around the implementation of the NCBS resulted in most provinces, Ontario included, deducting the NCBS amount from the benefits received by families who were on social assistance. This is what is commonly known as the NCBS clawback. Many provinces justify the clawback on the basis of fiscal imbalance.”

She notes that her government hopes to redress that problem.

Michael Chard, a Toronto food bank volunteer and Society of St. Vincent de Paul member, concurs with Gallant’s recollection. “In short, the federal Liberal government found it necessary to implement the federal child benefit, because local governments (both provincial and municipal) either would not or could not deal with increasing levels of child poverty in most major Canadian urban centres.”

Currently, a mother with a young child registered with the Ontario Works program receives $987 per month, including the basic needs and maximum shelter allowances. On every monthly welfare cheque is printed the amount that has been clawed back by the province.

At the Beginnings Crisis Pregnancy Centre in Guelph, Ont., director Bonnie D’Elia finds that most pregnant clients are either receiving social assistance or will be, as they continue the pregnancy. She finds that money is one key issue among several stress factors facing young parents. “I tend to be in favour of helping them take care of their children and meeting the needs they have any way we can and not making it more difficult,” as the clawback may do. “You know, it’s not a substantial amount of money they’re making on social assistance … We’re wanting them to take care of their children well. They’re wanting to parent well. And they need resources to do that.”

Says Gallant, “The sum of $115 per month represents a lot of money when a person is trying to adequately provide food, clothing and shelter for your children.”

During the 2003 provincial election, Ontario religious leaders called for an end to the clawback practice. In their Campaign Against Child Povery, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist representatives urged party leaders to “ensure all low-income children receive the full funds from the federal National Child Benefit.”

Dalton McGuinty, the Liberal leader, campaigned on a promise to end the clawback. Instead, the government he formed has allowed families on social assistance to retain the slight increases provided by the federal government in subsequent years. Nevertheless, his government has continued to claw back the base amount that had been targeted as of 2003. When a new provincial budget came down on March 23, 2006 and maintained the clawback, the mainstream media reported protests from major parties and advocacy groups.

Not all pro-lifers are dissatisfied with the status quo. Asserts Pat Hoy, Liberal MPP for Chatham-Kent Essex, Ont., “Since our government took office, we have made certain that all increases to the National Child Benefit Supplement stay in the hands of the people who need it most.” But Hoy does not rule out a future end to the clawback, saying that his “government will continue to examine Ontario’s approach to the NCBS and will decide whether it should be further changed or restructured.”

Hoy, who supported the Early Learning and Child Care Agreement with the former federal Liberal government, told The Interim, “I am proud to say that for the first time in 12 years, the most vulnerable are seeing a rate increase in their assistance. We raised the social assistance rates by 3 per cent in early 2005. We are now raising the rates by another 2 per cent for a total of 5 per cent.”

Opposition to the clawback practice has been raised on grounds other than the needs of the poor. Giuseppe Gori, leader of the Family Coalition Party of Ontario, first notes that policies on social assistance are subordinate in importance to those on the protection of life, the protection of the family and traditional marriage and the support of parents as primary educators of their children.

“We recognize that many Christians, with good intentions but a false understanding of social economy, tend to prioritize their efforts towards poverty, homelessness and other politically correct issues, often to the very detriment of the people who are the object of their efforts.”

While he said the FCP has no intention of creating policy on the “specifics of current systems” of   social assistance, heath-care, education or otherwise, Gori nevertheless perceives the present child benefit clawback as “an unnecessary complication, an example where federal and provincial programs conflict and an example of duplication.” He told The Interim, “It will be difficult, but should be possible, to achieve a situation where taxes levied are passed directly to the level of government that needs them.”

Gori suggested that both the CCTB and NCBS be administered at the provincial level, rather than by the federal government, or perhaps even by voluntary associations and churches.

He said, “We disagree with the premier of Ontario, who is threatening clawbacks in opposition to the federal government tax deduction plan for families with young children (on social assistance). Our party supports the current federal government plan of a childcare allowance for all parents of children under six.” He characterized a possible clawback of the new allowance as “immoral, unjust and smell(ing) of ‘revenge.'”

Gallant has risen in Parliament to defend the anticipated federal child-care allowance as an example of parental choice. “I mention this specific example to illustrate that for the previous 13 years, Canadians had been saddled with an interventionist government that without a doubt, has been anti-family. The worldwide trend away from Soviet-style institutionalized daycare has been very pronounced in those countries that were formerly part of the old Soviet empire and are now democracies. Our plan to provide benefits directly to families is in tune with the experience of other democratic countries.”

She added: “What is not clear is whether or not the Liberal party of Ontario plans to claw back this childcare allowance the way it claws back the national child benefit from the neediest children in our province, those whose parents are on social assistance.”

Clearly alluding to both born and unborn children, Gallant told Parliament: “Our country has many resources, but none are more precious than our children. They represent the hopes and dreams of families, communities and the entire nation. They are our future. I am pleased to be a member of a government that cares about supporting our most vulnerable members of society.”