EDMONTON – The number of Alberta families dependent on monthly welfare cheques peaked at 40,000 in 2010 and has yet to return to pre-recession levels, new provincial figures show.

A Journal analysis of newly released provincial data shows monthly caseloads stabilized around 33,000 in early 2014, significantly higher than the roughly 25,000 monthly caseloads before the 2008 financial crash.

The figures also show single people and lone-parent families make up the bulk of households receiving income support, while more than half of all welfare recipients are those not expected to work because they have “barriers to employment” — the only category of recipients that is on the rise.

David Schneider, executive director of program policy for the Human Services department, said the steady increase in that group is mainly made up of older Albertans no longer able to do the work they did when they were younger.

“We see people who are getting older, who maybe when they were in their 30s were able to work manual, physical jobs, and be self-sufficient,” he said.

“They’ve had lots of hard work, and their bodies aren’t in the same shape.”

Schneider said the number of Albertans receiving welfare hasn’t returned to pre-recession levels in part because more people have moved to Alberta, and the figures don’t reflect that population growth. Further, welfare caseloads typically mirror the unemployment rate, but with a six-month delay.

He said most welfare cheques go to single people and lone-parent families because the province measures total household income to determine if a family qualifies for support, and Albertans in a relationship who hit hard times are more likely to be supported by their partners.

The ministry does not measure how many people apply for welfare but are turned away, Schneider said.

The Income Support Program, popularly known as welfare, is a branch of the Alberta Works program. Alberta invests just over $388 million annually to help Albertans in crisis.

Typically, a single person who is expected to work receives $627 per month in support, while a single person with barriers to employment gets $731.

A single parent with two children who is expected to work — say a single mother who has left a violent relationship — receives $1,130.

Albertans on welfare can earn up to $230 a month by working, after which additional benefits are clawed back at a rate of 75 per cent.

John Kolkman of the Edmonton Social Planning Council said the number of welfare recipients with barriers to employment is increasing because front-line caseworkers are under pressure to reduce the number of Albertans receiving Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH).

This is partly because a single person on AISH receives $1,588 per month — more than double the welfare rate — and demand has increased since Alison Redford boosted rates by $400 in 2012.

“People in the front-line agencies will say a lot of those people (who receive income supports) have profiles not dissimilar to people who are in the AISH program, and that some of them should be on AISH,” he said. “It’s really hard to live on income support benefits — they are among the lowest in the country.”

Bill Moore-Kilgannon of Public Interest Alberta said caseloads haven’t returned to pre-recession levels because the government has cut job training programs for people on welfare.

“Unless we are supporting people to get the training they need to get a job, we will continue to see people stuck in the poverty cycle,” he said.

Further, he said “these numbers only represent those who got onto the system. … Who is excluded from support? There is no shortage of people who are in crisis and unable to get help.”

Fundamentally, he said the problem is that the Tories haven’t kept their 2012 election promise to introduce a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy.

“We have to support people before they fall into poverty,” he said.

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