Some CRA systems are ‘systemically oppressive’ towards vulnerable populations: taxpayers’ ombudsman

Systemic but unintentional barriers:

The federal taxpayers’ ombudsman says some of Canada Revenue Agency’s (CRA) processes are “systemically oppressive” towards vulnerable populations as well as indigenous, rural and northern communities.

“These (tax) filers feel they receive conflicting information, the processes are unfair and the CRA does not address their unique circumstances and needs,” Canada’s outgoing Taxpayers’ Ombudsman, Sherra Profit, writes in her 2019-2020 annual report published Wednesday.

“This general belief leads to reluctance to interact with a system much of the population believes to be systemically oppressive and in turn reduces the likelihood people receive all the benefits, credits and deductions to which they are entitled,” the report says.

That belief by indigenous, rural and northern communities isn’t just a question of perception, Profit later specified in an interview with the National Post.

“One’s perception is reality. It is their reality,” said the head of the taxpayers’ watchdog.

Over her five-year mandate that ends on July 5, Profit says she found multiple instances where CRA’s bureaucracy was overly rigid and had significant communication issues with taxpayers.

She says that can be particularly problematic for vulnerable populations who don’t always have quick or timely access to some basic services.

“There are aspects of the CRA systems and processes that will be more oppressive to certain groups (…) For example, so many people don’t have a family doctor. So asking for a letter from a family doctor isn’t going to work from them,” Profit said.

“There are also socio-economic classes of people who are in housing situations where it may be very difficult to get a lease or a letter on a letterhead from a landlord,” she said, adding that these CRA systems are not intentionally designed to be oppressive.

In her report, she highlights one particularly shocking case where a woman who depended on the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) for day-to-day living was suddenly cut off from payments and demanded to reimburse $16,000.

After she reached out to CRA for an explanation, the agency told her the documents she submitted in her reapplication after separation from her ex-spouse were “not legible”.

“Instead of requesting she resend them, the CRA stopped her benefits. The complainant resent the documents and called several times to get updates, without success,” Profit explains in the report.

It took an urgent intervention by the Taxpayers’ Ombudsman’s office to have CRA conduct a review of the file, according to the report. The CRA then understood why it was more difficult for the applicant to reapply for CCB.

“At this time it became known that her living situation was not safe and she was forced into an emergency shelter while trying to find permanent housing. Losing the CCB further complicated finding a suitable home for her children,” the report said.

At that point, the CRA not only quickly approved her new application, but also manually processed a retroactive CCB payment and then sent her the December payment early to assist with holiday spending.

“I do find there is a lot of breakdown in communication,” Profit said. “I know the CRA is making changes to how it administers programs like the CCB, but we’re finding we’re still seeing a lot of these complaints.”

Another issue she’s noted over her tenure as the taxpayers’ ombudsman is that various CRA departments tend to operate in silos.

That would explain why someone could be repeatedly asked by the agency to provide the same information or documentation over and over, for example.

“There are systems that don’t talk to one another, Profit said. That’s something I’ve really been constantly bringing up. (CRA needs) a more horizontal approach to look at things as a whole.”

Overall though, Profit says she’s encouraged by efforts made by the CRA to improve service to Canadians and gradually adopt more client-centric approach.

As an example, she noted the appointment of a Chief Services Officer in March 2018 whose job is to transform the agency’s culture and significantly improve the quality and speed of services offered to Canadians.

“They’re at least starting to talk the talk. They know there are issues, they know they are problems, and they have that Chief Services Officer who is looking at it with a whole-of-organization perspective,” the ombudsman explained.

But in order for her own organization to better do its job, Profit says the federal government needs to increase its budget and make her office report to Parliament.

As of now, the Taxpayers’ Ombudsman reports directly to the Minister of National Revenue, who is in charge of CRA.

“This structure creates an inherent element of conflict of interest in the ombudsman reporting to the Minister responsible for the department or agency the ombudsman is tasked with overseeing. A Minister has a vested interested in ensuring their department or agency is perceived to be operating effectively and efficiently,” Profit agues in her report.

Source: Some CRA systems are ‘systemically oppressive’ towards vulnerable populations: taxpayers’ ombudsman

Suburban families. Young renters. Frail seniors. Data reveals who is most at risk financially and socially across Canada amidst the pandemic

Some impressive integration of diverse data sources that highlights the range of vulnerable groups from a variety of angles:

New data from Environics Analytics highlights communities made vulnerable by coronavirus lockdowns across the country and profiles people at risk — such as young suburban families — that might get overlooked.

The data suggests where governments, businesses and social agencies need to focus supports and services as the economy takes baby steps toward reopening, Environics says.

“Governments are going to have to get more focused and pinpoint who they need to help and how,” says Rupen Seoni, senior vice president at Environics Analytics. “We have to get the right help to the right people.”

The data, which Environics Analytics made available to the Star, scores Canada’s more than 850,000 postal code communities on how likely they are to be vulnerable financially, socially, and by how old and frail their residents might be. The data company also developed profiles of people most at risk in those categories.

The company used thousands of data points from a long list of sources, including its own demographic research, Statistics Canada, the Bank of Canada, Canada Post, aggregated credit scores, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the census and surveys.

Environics found that the most financially vulnerable census metropolitan area in the country is Cold Lake, Alta., largely because of its reliance on the oilsands industry, which has seen the price of its product plummet during the pandemic’s economic fallout.

The least financially vulnerable is Canmore, also in Alberta, and the Greater Toronto Area fares only slightly worse. But the affluence indicated at Toronto’s metropolitan census level masks dense vulnerable pockets of people at the neighbourhood level, Environics notes.

Environics defines financially vulnerable people as those who will struggle to meet financial obligations like mortgages or utility bills if coronavirus lockdowns caused a sudden drop in their income. It’s sadly no surprise that Indigenous people, after generations of colonialism and trauma, appear in this category as highly vulnerable.

More surprising, perhaps, is the high financial vulnerability of young suburban families.

According to Environics, the 700,000 households in this group are affluent when all is well. But they have relatively low savings — $57,000 on average — and a total debt that is double their household income of $105,000.

“They don’t have the liquid assets in savings to fall back on,” Seoni says. “They may be running into trouble in terms of having a sudden loss of income, based on their lifestyles.” Much depends on whether they’re able to continue working at home or in essential services during the lockdown.

Also highly vulnerable financially are “young urban renters,” Environics found.

“The younger renters in cities are not that highly indebted, they just don’t have that much income in the first place,” Seoni says. “When they lose their jobs, there’s just nothing left.”

Young single people in urban areas also face high levels of social vulnerability due to pandemic restrictions on movement.

Environics Analytics defines social vulnerability as people likely to experience isolation and mental health troubles, while having limited social networks and supports. It’s a challenge more prevalent in urban areas rather than rural ones.

Environics found that 36 per cent of young singles surveyed in cities reported feeling a weak sense of community belonging.

“Often, they are transplants into the big city, so their social networks tend to be weaker,” Seoni says. “A good number of them would be students … They’re alone in the city, almost.”

Newcomers to Canada also face high levels of social vulnerability, Environics found.

“What’s really driving it for these newcomers is a lack of social networks,” Seoni says. Something as simple as finding a trusted person to rely on for groceries, for example, can be a challenge, Seoni adds.

Older people, particularly those on low incomes, and people with poor health, make up a group that, according to Environics, is vulnerable due to a high level of “frailty.”

The coronavirus has made only too clear the vulnerability of people in nursing homes. But the people Environics highlights are those not living in nursing homes, but whose frailty makes daily activities difficult.

The District of Guysborough, anchored by a port town in Nova Scotia, has the highest frailty level of vulnerability in Canada, Environics found. Peel Region, west of Toronto, has one of the lowest, but Seoni again warns about the regionwide picture masking vulnerable pockets.

“In the big picture, you don’t have many frail citizens,” he says. “But they’re there and they need help.”


How the pandemic is highlighting Canada’s class divide

Not surprising that the impact is greatest on those with precarious employment or low income. Hopefully some of the measures announced today will be effective in attenuating the impact:

While the pasta, beans and toilet paper were being cleared off the shelves of nearby supermarkets on a recent night, Ines Garcia was at home in her Toronto apartment, eating a meal of rice with corn and beef, all made with groceries purchased on sale in bulk before the novel coronavirus panic had truly taken hold of her city. She didn’t have the luxury of building a pandemic stockpile – she was worried about how she was going to pay rent in April.

Ms. Garcia, 54, lives in a subsidized apartment in the city’s Regent Park neighbourhood and her two part-time jobs support her teenaged children and her octogenarian mother. She’ll be missing a large chunk of her income when Ontario schools close for two weeks after March break, since one of her jobs is lunch supervisor at a school. She anticipates the other job, at a women’s clothing store, might abruptly end soon if the government expands orders for non-essential businesses to close.

“People are already living in poverty and then when you’re working part-time and you don’t have that cheque coming in, that makes it worse for all the people who depend on that cheque,” Ms. Garcia said.

The spread of the coronavirus has put a spotlight on the stark class divisions in Canada. Low-income Canadians and the agencies that serve them say directives given by public health officials and relief offered by the federal government are overlooking a huge swath of the population. How do you self-isolate when “home” is a crowded shelter? How do you take time off work when you have no paid sick days? How do you build up a stockpile of food and supplies when you struggle to afford groceries each week?

Many – including part-time workers such as Ms. Garcia, as well as many who are self-employed or part of the gig economy – don’t qualify for employment insurance. And access to paid leave for sickness or other reasons is limited for those with low incomes.

“It is immediately clear that lower-income workers are already substantially more likely to be taking leave that is unpaid – and are therefore far more likely to face the prospect of an unpaid quarantine,” said David Macdonald, an economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in a report published this week. His research found that those in the top income decile had 74 per cent of their leaves covered in 2019, while just 14 per cent of those in the lowest decile did.

“There’s a bit of a middle-class bias to all the interventions,” said Paul Taylor, the executive director of FoodShare Toronto, a non-profit devoted to food education.

And as panic gives rise to a sense of individualism – let me get a month’s supply of food for my family, let me find a nanny to look after my kids – “for folks with low incomes, they are really struggling to figure out, ‘Oh, my goodness, I can’t afford to stockpile food,'” Mr. Taylor said. “There’s no funding support available for those who are going to be struggling with access to childcare.”

An uptick in layoffs and reduced shifts have food banks bracing for an increase in demand and concern about how they’ll continue to operate, especially given a drop in donations as of late, says Kirstin Beardsley, the chief network services officer of Food Banks Canada.

“What we are hearing is that existing clients are very stressed about not being able to assemble two weeks’ worth of food should they need it,” she said.

Many food banks also feel strained because they rely heavily on volunteers, whose numbers have dropped following social distancing recommendations, Ms. Beardsley said. In response, they have been consolidating operations with small teams and using low-touch pickup systems.

Social distancing recommendations have also spelled financial peril for chef Sophia Banks, 40, and her partner. They have poured the past four months of time and funds into creating a product that was to have its debut at Vancouver’s Vegan Night Market on March 19, which has been indefinitely postponed. She had expected to make a few thousand dollars in sales.

“Right now, it’s kind of at the end where it’s like, okay, we have no money left,” she said. With no savings to pull from, she might normally pick up catering gigs, but with widespread event cancellations, no such opportunities exist.

“We’re all going to see our income just completely dry up from all of this,” she said. “This is going to be a huge crisis, like we’re gonna have hundreds of thousands of people in Canada unable to pay rent in a few weeks.”

Organizations who work with low-income earners or the precariously employed agree that a relief package in the form of cash transfers for individuals or families would be most beneficial to offset the current turmoil. In Japan, for example, the government gave out cash subsidies to cover lost wages for parents forced to care for their children because of school closures, or workers who had to self-quarantine at home.

That relief may be coming in Canada, but for those in the most dire situation – the homeless, many of whom struggle with mental illness and addictions – the greatest help would come from the government providing an emergency fund for shelters to increase spaces, said Rick Lees, the executive director at Winnipeg’s Main Street Project.

“There’s absolutely no logical system in place to deal with the most vulnerable and most marginalized,” he said. “While we’re telling people to not congregate in [groups of] greater than 250, or even 50, nobody has a plan for the 110 people that will sleep side by side in our shelter.”

In Toronto, the city announced Tuesday, the shelter system is temporarily expanding into empty municipal facilities that will allow for better social distancing between clients. If someone is being tested for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, they will not be allowed to enter the regular shelter system and instead be taken to an isolated space until they receive their results.

While she welcomed the city’s move to create more space in response to the pandemic, Patricia Mueller, the chair of the Toronto Shelter Network, said general directives from public health – like frequent and thorough hand washing, for example – can be challenging to implement.

She explained that alcohol-based sanitizer dispensers can’t be mounted in public spaces in all shelters because “there have been cases where clients have stolen it in desperation … and some people are afraid to take a shower because they have this paranoia that their things are going to be stolen, right? So we have to work within the realm of all of those issues with all of our clients.”