Tracking the Canada Emergency Response Benefit

By: Jennifer Robson, Associate Professor of Political Management, Carleton University

CERB is the most important, if temporary, new income support program in generations, but little is known yet about how and for whom it is working. By tracking government updates on applicants and benefits paid since April, Jennifer Robson shows the evolution of the program and the changing intensity of use among new applicants.

On July 3, the federal government finally released data on take-up of  the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) that disaggregated the national numbers by province, gender and age of the claimant. The program has proven to be by far the largest direct spending initiative in the federal government’s COVID-19 response and has already paid out more than $50 billion. That’s more than twice the amount the government projected in early April and more than 3.5 times the amount the government’s original plan for emergency income support was expected to cost. The July fiscal update has suggested the final cost will be a little over $80 billion.

The CERB data being published are cumulative totals of applications received and processed, the count of unique applicants and the total of benefits paid. Careful readers of the data should remember this is not a count of the current caseload but instead a cumulative measure of how many Canadians have ever applied for and received $1 in CERB benefits. As of the time of writing in early July, the maximum amount one person could have received from CERB is $8,000 with another two payments of $2,000 each still available until early October.

The government has not been releasing caseload data so it’s been hard to understand how take-up of the program has evolved. As a second best solution, I’ve reconstructed the government’s own irregular updates to the numbers. That dataset is available online as a .csv file to anyone who wants it and I’ll try to keep it updated until there is an official time series available.

One way to use the data to look at changes in the use of CERB is to consider how intensely people are relying on the program. If we know that 8.2 million Canadians have used it at some point, an average benefit amount that is closer to the maximum available in each benefit period would tell us something about whether program users are applying for every dollar of CERB they can get. The maximum CERB available was $4,000 up to May 9, $6,000 from May 10 through June 6, and $8,000 from June 7 to July 4. The latest CERB update was for June 28.

As illustrated in the chart (above), average cumulative benefits received by each program user were just below the maximum by the end of the second claim period (May 9), about $800 below the maximum at the end of the third claim period (June 6), and are currently nearly $1,500 below the maximum as we approach the end of the 4th claim period. This suggests that, compared to April, a declining share of CERB recipients are regular users of the program, consistent with the modest improvements in May’s employment indicators, particularly for male workers.