Feds target low-income seniors with tax mailings to boost benefit take-up

OTTAWA — Seniors’ mailboxes will be blitzed in the coming weeks with federal reminders to file their taxes on time as part of a government bid to get more low-income seniors into an old age benefit program.

Tens of thousands of letters will go to Canadians over 65 years old, as well as those within one year of turning 65, explaining that they could be eligible for the low-income supplement on top of old age security.

Many low-income seniors who could use the extra cash often don’t apply for it because they think they earn too much to qualify so the government has started automatically enrolling or reapproving seniors based on their tax filings.

However if seniors don’t file their taxes on time, that can’t happen.

Employment and Social Development Canada documents show about one in 10 seniors who are eligible for the guaranteed income supplement didn’t receive it in 2016-17.

The latest figures from the government show the supplement provides up to $898 a month for the poorest single senior, and up to $540 for those in a couple, on top of what a senior receives in old age security payments.

Statistics Canada poverty figures for 2016 — the most recent figures available — showed that 4.9 per cent of those 65 and older lived in low-income, based on the government’s newly established poverty line.

To push that figure lower, the government used tax filings last year to automatically enrol new seniors into the program. They also automatically renewed payments to more than 1.9 million — or just over 96 per cent — of existing GIS recipients.

The remaining four per cent are those who didn’t file their taxes on time, causing a disruption in supplement payments. During the fiscal year that ended last March, the government suspended GIS payments to 104,000 seniors, 44 per cent of whom didn’t file a tax return, according to documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the federal access-to-information law.

Letters reminding seniors to file their taxes have had a positive impact on enrolment in the past.

Between November 2016 and January 2017, the government sent about 99,000 letters to eligible seniors. A further 93,000 were sent between February and March 2018. The combined result was that about 90,000 responded and were found to be eligible, or were expected to be eligible.

The letters, along with follow-up phone calls, and automatic enrolment of new and soon-to-be-seniors has meant take-up of the benefit has increased from about 88 per cent of eligible seniors to almost 93 per cent, according to a June presentation for a meeting of officials from ESDC and the Canada Revenue Agency.

A 2017 study the department ran gave insight into why about half of letter recipients didn’t apply for GIS. The final report, which ESDC provided to The Canadian Press, noted that awareness of the program, knowledge of how it works, and attitudes about applying all played in to why someone did or didn’t apply — a complex web of human behaviours officials are still trying to unravel.

The department has created an interactive, online tool to help seniors and near-seniors learn about old age security including who is eligible and how to apply. Seniors who didn’t provide enough tax information can provide the relevant details over the phone to quickly deal with any interruption in payments.

An ESDC spokesman said officials will watch responses to the latest round of letters to figure out how best to reach those seniors who don’t respond.

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