The real cost of cutting Employment Insurance

This morning I had the privilege of presenting to a Canadian Senate committee regarding Bill C-316 (An Act to Amend the Employment Insurance Act – Incarceration). The private member’s bill would claw back Employment Insurance (EI) from incarcerated people after they are released from prison. In other words, individuals who are imprisoned for up to two years would no longer be eligible for EI, even if they paid into the program before going to prison. (Those imprisoned longer than two years are already ineligible.)

United Way of Calgary and Area was invited by the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology because of the research we’ve done on poverty-related crime. United Way’s 2008 research report Crimes of Desperation highlighted how most incarcerated women are imprisoned or held in remand for non-violent crimes. These crimes are often poverty-related: shoplifting, free riding on public transit, or drug possession related to addictions, to name a few examples.

(Click here to see United Way’s brief to the Senate on Bill C-316.)

I shared with senators how United Way of Calgary and Area opposes Bill C-316 because income supports such as EI are critical for ensuring successful reintegration into society after incarceration. There is a perception that people coming out of prison already receive strong supports, but in fact these supports are limited and fragmented. In some cases, people are homeless after leaving prison. They are blocked from plugging into the opportunity grid in our society, and often fall into repeated incarceration. This is financially and socially costly for all Canadians.

The group of people affected by this bill — those who worked and paid into EI before being incarcerated — are those most likely to be able to work after leaving prison. This is the group that is most likely to speedily reintegrate into society, and this is the group being penalized. EI may only last for a few weeks or months after someone is released from prison, but it can be enough to get somebody back on their feet and productive.

I felt that United Way’s research and expertise were valued by the senators today. Some asked questions about criminals getting EI while victims have limited support. I responded that United Way would strongly back more programs and supports for victims of crime. We don’t want more crime; we don’t want more victims. Our fear is that this bill will actually create more victims by making people deprived of EI more likely to re-offend.

When people leaving prison are supported in contributing to society once again, taxpayers save money, future victims are prevented, and our communities are healthier.

—Dr. Loreen Gilmour is Director of Poverty Initiatives and Research for United Way of Calgary and Area. The Senate invited her to Ottawa because of United Way’s 2008 report, Crimes of Desperation. The Senate paid her expenses for the trip.

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