For thousands accessing food banks across Toronto, lack of income is the key driver of hunger. Clients on average spend 71 per cent of their income on rent, which leaves little for food and other necessities. For many, an extra hundred dollars or more a month could mean the difference between being able to afford groceries or having to access a food bank, being able to pay rent without skipping meals, or not needing to access a food bank as frequently.
While much needs to be done to improve and strengthen our social safety net and income security system, there is extra income that is already available through our tax system, but receiving these benefits is dependent on people filing their taxes.
Food banks can help remove barriers to accessing extra income
Sometimes people don’t file their taxes because they are not aware of the benefits to them, or may encounter other barriers due to the complexity and administrative requirements involved. Unfortunately, people on low incomes are losing out on potentially thousands of dollars of additional income because of these barriers.
Recognizing the barriers many low income people face in getting the benefits from tax filing, some food banks and other member agencies of Daily Bread Food Bank provide tax clinics and other tax filing assistance for their clients. With targeted outreach and administrative and technological support, many more low income people could be receiving all the benefits they’re entitled to receive.
Daily Bread Food Bank member agencies such as The Bluffs, New Toronto Street Food Bank, St. James Food Basket, Toronto West SDA, and Native Canadian Centre among many others offer tax filing assistance. These member agencies are similar to many other community tax clinics that provide trained volunteers, many through the Canada Revenue Agency’s Community Volunteer Income Tax Program (CVITP), which help people file their taxes through one on one support. Through continued outreach such as this, hopefully more people who are less likely to file taxes will be able to do so, and be informed of all the benefits to which they’re entitled.
Who’s filing – and who’s not filing – by the numbers
In 2013 Daily Bread’s Who’s Hungry survey found that 72 per cent of respondents accessing food banks across the GTA had filed their income taxes that year.1 While it is good news that nearly three quarters of respondents filed their taxes and are getting the benefits they are entitled to, there are more than 25 per cent of clients who are potentially missing out. And despite outreach efforts to inform people of these benefits, newer strategies may be needed to reach those who are less likely to file.
The Maytree Foundation recently published a piece entitled “Filing taxes brings major benefits to people on low incomes”. The article, which will be referenced throughout this report, noted that while provincial and federal tax benefits such as the Canada Child Benefit, Old Age Security, and GST/HST credits can cumulatively add up to thousands of dollars of additional income for low income households, many miss out because they either don’t file or are not aware of what they’re eligible to apply for or even how to apply.
Of those who do not file, the Who’s Hungry survey found that certain demographic groups accessing food banks were less likely to file than others.2 They include single people, households receiving social assistance as a main form of income, and recent newcomers who have been in Canada for more than a year but less than four years. These groups are not mutually exclusive, and many issues they face overlap. Highlighting those groups who are less likely to file may help to provide some insight as to what some potential barriers to filing might be and where more outreach may be needed.
Single person households
Single person households are significantly less likely to have filed their taxes, with 69 per cent filing a tax return the previous year compared to 75 per cent for other household types.
Of all household types, working age single person households without children have the least amount of pre-retirement tax credits available to them, unlike households with children who can access various child tax benefits, including the Ontario Child Benefit and the Canada Child Tax Benefit. For single people living on low income, there may be less incentive to file taxes due to lack of awareness of the benefits that are available to them even if they had no employment income the previous year.
Social assistance as a main source of income
People receiving social assistance as their main form of income are also significantly less likely to have filed their taxes the previous year, with 70 per cent reporting that they filed compared with 78 per cent not receiving social assistance as their main form of income. Respondents who were not receiving social assistance as their main form of income were receiving other sources such as employment, pensions, or child tax benefits.
In addition to the misperception that if they don’t owe income tax there is little reason to file, people receiving social assistance may face other barriers. In Maytree’s article, it was noted that since the CRA is promoting electronic filing the lack of accessibility for people with disabilities or those who don’t have high-speed internet or a computer, may pose barriers. Clients living on social assistance spend the vast majority of their income on rent and utilities, and some may not be able to afford to have high speed internet at home.
The article also noted that “people with low incomes experiencing challenges or who have complex tax situations may need hands-on help to tax file, but can’t afford paid tax advisors and may not know where to turn for free help it it’s available in their community.”
Recent newcomers, for the purposes of this analysis defined as being in Canada for four years or less (but here for more than one year), are less likely to have filed their taxes. Fifty-seven per cent of recent newcomers filed their taxes the previous year, versus 76 per cent of those who are not recent newcomers.
The barriers faced by recent newcomers are similar to those faced by others, including lack of awareness of available benefits, cost, and lack of knowledge of the system that affect their ability to access a range of services beyond just financial ones. Limited knowledge of English could be another reason, with a previous study by Daily Bread noting that those who did not have a good command of the language were less likely to file.
Despite being more likely to file their taxes, low income seniors are still not receiving all the benefits they’re entitled to
According to the 2013 Who’s Hungry survey, respondents who were seniors 65 or older were significantly more likely to have filed their taxes: 85 per cent filed the previous year compared to 71 per cent who were not seniors. However, only 11 per cent were receiving the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors, even though many more were likely eligible. The most recent Who’s Hungry survey for 2016 did not ask a question about tax filing, but the number of seniors accessing the GIS had not significantly changed.
The Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) is part of a basic income-type program that exists for seniors in Canada. Low income seniors qualify for the GIS if they are receiving the Old Age Security pension (OAS), and have an annual income lower than a set threshold ($17,544 annually for a single person household, or approximately $1,500 per month). They also need to have resided in Canada for at least 10 years in order to receive it.
The Maytree report referenced an evaluation by Human Resources and Development Canada, which estimated that while 87 per cent of eligible seniors are accessing the GIS, there are potentially 200,000 more who may be missing out.
Food bank clients who are seniors provide some insight as to the circumstances of those who are not receiving the benefit.
The median monthly income reported by Who’s Hungry survey respondents 65 and over is $1,200 per month, which from a financial standpoint make them eligible for the GIS. While three quarters of survey respondents were not born in Canada, the vast majority – 74 per cent – have lived here at least 10 years or more which would make also them eligible due to their length of residence in Canada.
In order to receive the GIS, a senior must specifically request it when applying for OAS. While a much higher percentage of senior respondents (50%) reported that they were receiving OAS, it’s still possible that some are not applying for that source of income as well even though they’re entitled to it.
Because the application process for both OAS and GIS can be administratively complex without some assistance, language barriers may be a factor for some seniors in Toronto not accessing it. Fifty-one per cent of seniors reported not speaking English as their main language at home. Other seniors who have just turned 65 may not have applied in time, and are still receiving social assistance (either Ontario Works or Ontario Disability Support Program) despite being qualified to receive seniors’ benefits that could increase their income by hundreds of dollars a month.
“Tax-filing is a proven way to improve the financial situation of Canadians with low incomes, but has yet to be fully exploited as a means to reduce poverty in Canada.”
– U. Bajwa
1 The results from the 2013 Who’s Hungry survey are based on 1680 interviews conducted with people accessing food banks across the GTA.
2 Chi square analyses were conducted for the results in this report, with significance at the .05 level.