Fact Check: Pensioners vs. Refugees

This graphic crossed my facebook feed recently:

This sounds alarming, as it’s designed to. But before we forward, let’s stop and ask ourselves: is it true? (Spoiler alert: it’s not.)

First, let’s look at the money available for refugees.

I went digging a bit to see where these numbers came from. This is an interesting one in that we can actually pinpoint exactly where the misunderstanding starts (with thanks to the fine investigative team at Snopes): a Toronto Star article back in 2004 profiling the government’s plan to re-settle Somali refugees referenced an “$1,890 start-up allowance” as part of that plan. The wording there was unclear; the “allowance” is not a monthly payment, but a one-time start-up payment meant to cover things like very basic (used) furnishings: pots and pans, linens, and the like. But a reader wrote back to the author of the piece expressing indignation at the idea that refugees would be receiving over $2,000 in support per month — and also sent a similar email to about a hundred other people. There was also a letter to the editor expressing similar outrage published in the Star. From there, the misinformation ball was rolling.

So, this misunderstanding has been circulating for nearly fifteen years now. It’s bad enough that Citizenship and Immigration Canada has a statement addressing it on their website:

Do government-assisted refugees get more income support and benefits than Canadian pensioners do?

No. Refugees do not get more financial help from the federal government than Canadian pensioners.

A commonly shared email makes this false claim. The email falsely includes the one-time start-up payment as part of the monthly payment.

The amount of monthly financial support that government-assisted refugees gets is based on social assistance rates in each province and territory. It is the minimum amount needed to cover only the most basic food and shelter needs.

You know a rumour has unfortunate staying power when a government entity has to leave up a permanent corrective notice.

So the big number is wrong: refugees aren’t receiving over two grand a month. They are eligible for a few hundred dollars of government support on a monthly basis — which provides an income that is well below the poverty line. I couldn’t find precise numbers for this because it varies slightly by province, but in any case, refugees aren’t exactly pulling in the big bucks here. Furthermore, refugees often arrive in Canada already in debt to the Canadian government for their travel and medical expenses — which they must repay, with interest.

But what about that monthly support? Is it permanent? Not at all — according to the CIC website, government-sponsored refugees receive support for 12 months or until they find employment, whichever comes first. If we assume that the $580/mo. referenced in the graphic is accurate and that a refugee remains eligible for the full twelve months, that still brings them to a yearly income of only $6,960. That’s not milking the system. That’s desperate poverty.

What about benefits for pensioners?

Canadian seniors are eligible for something called the Old Age Security (OAS) payment after they turn 65, and low-income seniors are also eligible for a Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS). The amount received for these depend on income and marital status, but let’s use as our example our closest analogue to a refugee. We’ll call him George. George is a Canadian citizen who has lived in Canada all of his life. He is not married and he has no other income. When George turned 65 he applied for the OAS and he is eligible to receive $589.59 a month from that. (All figures taken from the government benefits table provided online.) George is already doing very marginally better than our refugee — but since George has no income, he is also eligible for the GIS. George will receive $880.61 from the GIS every month, which brings him to a total monthly benefit of $1,470.20, or $17,642.40 per year. Now, this isn’t break-the-bank money. But it’s still 2.5x the amount available to a refugee, and it’s not going to cut off after a year; it will last until George dies.

Remember, too, that George is an outlier, since I’ve arbitrarily decided that he has somehow never contributed to the Canada Pension Plan (which would otherwise provide him with an additional average income of $691.93 monthly and perhaps quite a bit more) and doesn’t have a Registered Retirement Savings Plan or any investments. Yes, there are definitely seniors who live in poverty in Canada — but most are going to be better off than our poor friend George, who is himself, let us remind ourselves, still significantly better off than a refugee.

Now — what about the moral claims?

We’ve sorted out the money. Now let’s look at the moral argument our graphic makes. To sum it up:

  1. Canadian seniors have contributed to Canada for decades
  2. Canadian seniors therefore deserve government benefits
  3. Refugees have not contributed to Canada and therefore do not deserve (as many / any) government benefits
  4. Canada should strip refugees of their benefits in order to redistribute them to pensioners

I mean… yikes. Now, I have no problem with senior citizens collecting old age supplements. In thirty or forty years I will likely be doing that myself. Let’s allow assertions one and two to stand. But that’s where the reasonableness ends.

First of all, if we think that the government of Canada should be providing more benefits and income supplements for senior citizens, there are surely other places to find those funds. There is zero reason to pit two vulnerable groups against each other.

Secondly, though, if the government gave refugees $50,000 a year I still wouldn’t envy them because being a refugee is terrible. Nobody wants to be a refugee. If someone is a refugee that means they are fleeing extremely traumatic circumstances, have more than likely spent some years living in tent shanties in a refugee camp, and that they now have to try and rebuild their lives from nothing in a country where they’re simultaneously trying to cope with a new language, culture, government, and climate. Oh, and let’s throw in some probable PTSD on top of that. People don’t become refugees so that the government will throw them some of that sweet benefit cash. People become refugees so that they can live and not die. If we’re going to bring in the language of “deserving” here, then surely refugees deserve our compassion and aid.

So if you chance to run across the same graphic I did making the rounds on social media, remember that it is (to use its own words) “AN INCREDIBLE NONSENSE !!!” and consider sharing this post or the graphic I found below as a response.