Some local charities are now speculating that the Canada Emergency Response Benefit intended to help struggling Canadians through COVID-19 could actually cause a poverty spike here in Steinbach.

In recent months, Steinbach Community Outreach Executive Director Irene Kroeker has observed a disturbing number of individuals already on Employment and Income Assistance (EIA) successfully access the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

“You cannot access two government programs at once,” stresses Kroeker, who says CERB is intended for people who have been laid off or let go because of the pandemic. However, in their haste to get money to the people who needed it as quickly as possible, Kroeker believes the government has unintentionally crippled individuals who were not supposed to access the funds in the first place.

“People on EIA are the ones we are worried about,” she says, “because we know they will somehow have to return the money.”

Kroeker says she is aware of several non-eligible individuals who have accessed the $4,000 in CERB handouts with no intention of paying it back. Many of them, she notes, already owe so much to the government that assuming a few thousand dollars of extra debt makes very little difference. Kroeker says this reckless borrowing could have steep consequences when the government asks for the money to be returned.

“The way the program is set up right now, they could be cut completely off from EIA or else the government would claw it back in increments, lowering the basic needs money that they get. Either way, they are going to be in big trouble.”

If the government does decrease regular EIA payments, as they have suggested, Kroeker expects the necessity of community support programs and soup kitchens will only grow.

“I have no doubt this will cause a huge need at Outreach,” she says.

While she recognizes that CERB is very good for those whom it was designed, Kroeker expects there to be significant negative repercussions not too far down the line. At this point, she acknowledges, the issue remains entirely hypothetical, but if it does materialize, Kroeker sees either forgiving the debts or increasing donations to non-profits as the two most viable solutions. Both, unfortunately, would require even more government spending.