Living on EIA: Myth vs. Reality
Plus: Find out how to get involved with Poverty Awareness & Community Action
Many people lack a clear understanding of what EIA is and there are a lot of myths and stigma surrounding the program. In this article we are working to dispel some of those myths with help from Luca Gheorghica, Debby Sillito and Seidu Mohammed, who have lived experiences living on EIA, and are members of Poverty Awareness and Community Action (PACA). Here’s what they had to share with us.
What is EIA?
Employment Income Assistance (EIA) is a government program that provides community members with low or no income with a limited amount of money to live on. It is intended as a last resort for those who can no longer work, have lost their job and can’t find work, and whose income has run out. The amount of money provided depends on each person’s circumstances and is meant to help with rent and basic needs. Having a robust social welfare system is a crucial part of creating a healthy and socially inclusive society.
Myth #1 People get more than enough money from EIA
A living wage in Manitoba should be a wage of $16.15 per hour when working full–time, or a monthly gross income of $2,799. At $11.90 per hour (as of Oct. 2020), even the minimum wage in the province is not enough to live on. The money provided by EIA is much less than that. A single adult with no dependents typically receives $771 per month, which is less than half of what is supposed to be the minimum amount of income that people need to afford their living expenses.
The amount of money given also has rules for what it is supposed to be used for, and there is often no room for extra things, no matter how necessary they might be. Seidu Mohammed has particular needs for clothing due to his disability as he is not able to use zippers or buttons. However, EIA did not approve additional funding to have clothing altered to use Velcro, even though without these changes Mohammed is unable to wear the clothing. Other living expenses that the basic allowance for EIA General Assistance does not account for include phone, Internet, and transportation, which are all necessary expenses to receive health care and find employment.
Many people struggle on EIA because it is not enough money to live a healthy and socially inclusive life. When Luca Gheorghica was living on EIA, they often would just not pay bills as they could not afford to pay them, and would go days with no food in their fridge. Many people just do the bare minimum to maintain themselves, and might not leave the house for multiple days if they don’t have transportation. Gheorghica has been able to see what a livable income can look like since being on the Canada Recovery Benefit – there is always food in the fridge and essential bills are always paid. Luca is now an even stronger advocate for living wages, a livable basic needs benefit and universal basic income.
Myth #2 EIA gives people money for nothing and makes people dependent on the system
Although EIA provides people with some financial assistance, it is not easy to apply and be approved. The amount of money provided is not enough to support a fulfilling life. Where there are extra funds available, like for bus fare to get to medical appointments or $32 per month for a phone, people can only get these supports if they know to ask for them. EIA Counsellors won’t typically share this information freely, and people usually have very little knowledge about what is actually available or how to find out. Getting approval for additional supports can also depend on the EIA Counsellor to whom you are assigned. If they disagree, are unaware of the support available, or have another reason to decline the request, clients may not receive the support they need.
Once people do get some support from EIA, they aren’t just doing nothing like the myth claims. Debby Sillito is an advocate for people on EIA, and says that being on EIA is like working a full-time job. Depending on their circumstances, a single person on EIA might only have about $50 a month left for food after rent, which means they often have to go to multiple soup kitchens to get three meals a day. If they are able to afford buying food, they would also need to shop around to find where food is the cheapest in order to work within the limited budget provided, and the food that is affordable is often very processed and not as nutritious or healthy. EIA also doesn’t provide enough money for transportation, so getting to all these different places can take all day by bus or on foot.
The way EIA is set up makes it incredible hard to get off of it. People on EIA General Assistance usually have a work plan requiring them to apply for a minimum number of jobs each week, usually around 20 applications but Sillito has heard of EIA Counsellors requiring up to 60 applications per week. If they don’t follow the work plan, they will be cut off of EIA. If they do find employment, people can earn up to $200 per month on top of their basic allowance, but after that, they can only keep 30% of any additional income they earn. Once they have earned more than their basic allowance for two consecutive months, they will be cut off off of EIA. For someone with a disability, getting cut off from EIA means they would lose their supplementary health care and no longer be able to afford their medications and other healthcare costs. They’d still be living in poverty on a minimum wage. The way EIA and other government systems are set up puts people in a difficult position, keeping them stuck in the system. As Sillito put it, living in poverty is not something people choose to do; it’s something they have no choice but to do.
Myth #3 People on EIA are just lazy and they should just work harder
There are various reasons why people might end up on EIA. Some newcomers might need the assistance as they are unable to work while they are learning the local language or upgrading skills. Others might be single parents with children under two years of age who are unable to find affordable childcare and need to stay home to care for their children. People on EIA are also workers who have unexpectedly lost their employment, or people who face new or worsening healthcare challenges.
Amongst people with disabilities, some might be on EIA because they are discriminated against within the job market and unable to find employment. Mohammed is a newcomer with a disability who has applied for many jobs, and in all his interviews they have told him he would not be able to do the job he has applied for. Despite really wanting to find a job, he is unable to do so due to discrimination against his abilities.
EIA exists as an important social safety net for everyone and given adequate alternatives, people do not choose to be on EIA. In all the examples given above, there are structural barriers that prevent people from earning enough income – white supremacy and xenophobia that discriminates against education and training from other countries, patriarchy and sexism that results in an inadequately funded childcare system, and ableism and capitalism that only sees what people with disabilities cannot do, rather than what they can with support and accommodation.
These are just some of the myths about EIA. Sillito said it is important to dispel these myths in order to move toward a society where all people can have a chance for a prosperous and healthy life. Ending poverty would have a domino effect of reducing the money governments spend on policing and health care, as people would live healthier and more fulfilling lives. It’s all interconnected and by eliminating poverty our whole society would be better off.
This article was written with help from Luca Gheorghica, Debby Sillito and Seidu Mohammed of Poverty Awareness and Community Action (PACA) and students Daryl Fung, Kristen Nguyen and Pouria Jabari taking part in the Community Projects program with the UM’s Community Engaged Learning office.
If you would like to get involved with PACA, please join us for the Poverty Awareness & Community Advocacy program, which will run on Thursday evenings from May 20 to September 16. This virtual program will give students an opportunity to take part in poverty awareness education and improve their direct and community advocacy skills while working with people who have lived experiences with poverty. The deadline to apply is May 31, 11:59 p.m.
Community Engaged Learning, a part of Student Engagement and Success in Student Affairs, helps students develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to work well with community. To learn more about Community Engaged Learning and their programs at the University of Manitoba, visit our website.
Community Engaged Learning
Email: communityengagement [at] umanitoba [dot] ca