The federal government has suspended a program that saw more than 1,000 employment insurance recipients receive surprise visits from federal Human Resources staff members.
Some who received a knock on the door have told reporters that it felt like the inspectors were checking up on them and their job searches.
The program was never announced publicly, but was discovered by media organizations.
The inspections are now on hold.
A visible system that catches cheats can deter a lot of potential swindlers, especially if they see there are serious consequences for lying. If there are no checks and balances, users will learn that they can cheat the system, and illegitimate claims will mount. It’s human nature.
The same thing happens when you’re driving. The odds of being caught speeding are slim, but it’s likely that small risk is what stops you – and almost every other driver – from doing 150 kilometres per hour on the highway.
While a little fear of getting caught is a good thing, trying to catch everyone who has ever misused EI would cost a fortune – certainly more than the system would recover in reduced payouts.
Same goes for speed traps. We could put a cop on every corner and eliminate speeding, but the cost of paying the extra officers wouldn’t be worth the end result.
Law-and-order Conservatives may not like to hear it, but people have always misused benefit systems and always will. If any taxpayer wants to see their money spent as frugally as possible, they should support a sensible approach to enforcement: deter as many would-be cheats as possible without rolling out an expensive system that tries to police every penny.
So if you have an enforcement system, flaunt it. Media reports and word-of-mouth can help make anyone who thinks about cheating realize they may get caught.
But the Harper government didn’t flaunt the inspection program. It wasn’t even mentioned by the government until people who received visits called the media. That means any deterrent effect was wasted.
The program’s other drawback is that the door-to-door inspectors were very unlikely to find someone flagrantly cheating the system. What did they expect to discover, someone mining in the back yard or doing a bit of shipbuilding in the driveway?
If interviews in the local government office were needed, then it would have saved a pile of money to call the EI recipients by phone. Heading out on the street is not only inefficient, it’s degrading to the recipients, some of whom felt they needed to make their case right on their own doorstep, maybe with family and neighbours looking on.
What we all need to remember is that there is no “us” or “them” in this story. EI is a part of the safety net we all pitch into, and we may all need it at some point in time.