The City of Ottawa is dealing with an unusually high number of welfare fraud cases this year, and it’s feared new eligibility requirements for Ontario Works could add to the problem.
The city, which administers the provincial welfare program, has cut benefits to 260 clients due to fraud so far in 2017, putting it on track for the highest number of fraud cases since 2013, or double the annual average.
The rise can be at least partly explained by the steady increase in the number of Ontario Works recipients. More than half-a-million people receive the income support benefits each month, and more than 37,000 of those are in Ottawa.
“It’s corresponded to the case load increase,” said Michelle McTiernan, a director with the city’s community and social services department.
However instances of fraud are currently rising at a faster rate than the number of Ontario Works cases, and the surge shows no signs of slowing.
New eligibility rules
At the same time, Ontario has eased welfare eligibility requirements, allowing thousands more to apply for benefits.
Previously, individuals with more than $2,500 in the bank were automatically ineligible for income support. On Sept. 1, the asset limit quadrupled to $10,000, while total monthly benefits increased by up to two per cent.
Advocates say it’s a welcome change.
“The people who need these benefits are often people who have more than $1,000 in the bank,” said Gary Stein, executive director of South Ottawa Community Legal Services, which offers benefits advice to clients. “It’s a good thing.”
But as the number of recipients increases, so could the number of fraud cases.
Complicated rules, random audits
Welfare amounts vary: a single person receives about $700 monthly, while a family of five could be eligible for about $2,200. Every dollar a recipient earns over $200 per month reduces their benefits by 50 cents, so someone working a low-paying job could quickly have their assistance slashed by half.
“The benefits programs are complicated, they’re hard for people to understand the rules. Governments try to make the rules clearer, but there’s still rules that are hard for people to often understand,” Stein said.
Instances of fraud are discovered during random audits to which…