Come tax time, why food banks across Canada are offering tax returns in addition to food

by Richard Matern, Director of Research at Food Banks Canada

Food banks across Canada do critical work to feed their neighbours in need every day. What some may not realize is that many also connect people with the tools, resources, and education needed to address the root causes of food insecurity – which is poverty and low incomes.

As the tax deadline looms, many food banks across Canada are offering to help their clients file their taxes as part of the broad range of support they offer to their local communities.  This type of support is just another example of how food banks try to help people meet both their immediate as well as long-term needs.

In March of last year, there were close to 1.1 million visits to food banks nationwide. The driving force behind those visits is low income. The majority of people accessing food banks that month –  59 per cent – relied on provincially administered social assistance or disability-related supports as their main source of income. In every province and territory nationwide, total income levels for households that rely on social assistance as their main source of income fall behind the poverty threshold of the Market Basket Measure (MBM), the official measure of poverty.1

Every dollar counts

For households whose incomes fall behind the poverty threshold, every dollar counts when it comes to being able to meet basic needs. There is a range of federal and provincial financial supports available to households receiving social assistance, such as the GST/HST credit, federal and provincial child benefits, and other tax benefits that can significantly increase incomes for those on social assistance.

However many of these benefits require submission of a tax return, and those who don’t file, miss out.

Vulnerable populations, which include many receiving provincial social assistance, may miss out on the full range of federal programs and supports they are entitled to if they don’t file their taxes. Reasons for not filing include lack of awareness of the benefits that are available, limited access to technology, or administrative barriers in the tax filing process.2 Some populations, including newcomers, single person households, people with physical or mental health challenges, and others who are vulnerable to poverty and low income are among the least likely to file.3

There has been recognition from the federal government of the barriers many on low-income face that prevent them from filing taxes, and they have invested in approaches that are able to better target and reach vulnerable populations so they can receive all the benefits they are entitled to. This includes the Canada Revenue agency collaborating with local community organizations through the Community Volunteer Income Tax Program (CVITP), which provides support for volunteers to assist low-income individuals prepare and submit their tax returns.4

Food banks can reach those most vulnerable to missing out on benefits

Nationwide, food banks are local, community-based leaders in being able to reach vulnerable populations to help them meet their basic needs. In Food Banks Canada’s network, over 300 food banks, either directly provide or refer people to services to help people file their taxes free of charge.

This includes the Saskatoon Food Bank and Learning Centre, who through the CVITP helped over 7,000 people file over 4,800 tax returns last year, putting $19.2 million back into hands of low-income individuals in Saskatoon. For the last 20 years, this food bank has helped release funds to people who may not have known they were eligible to receive them. Through their income tax centre, benefits and eligibilities such as the Canada Child Benefit, Saskatchewan Low Income Tax Credit, and provincial social services have been discovered by clients who weren’t accessing these funds and didn’t realize they were eligible.

While we push for a better system for the future, tax filing can help people with low incomes today.

The Saskatoon Food Bank and Learning Centre is just one example of the impact that such a program can have: similar partnerships across the country have helped many others access benefits, increase incomes, and reduce the need for help from a food bank. While we continue to strive for an improved income security system that will better integrate with provincial social assistance programs and build on the basic income model, providing tax filing support can help people access the range of national and provincial income supports that already exist. And in many cases – these added supports can make a big difference in people’s lives.

Maytree, Welfare in Canada 2017:
Breaking down barriers to tax filing”:
Prosper Canada, “Accessing Income-Boosting Benefits through tax filing”: