Love or Money: When MSDSI Determines the Nature of your Relationship

By: 

Jennifer Matthews

Valentine’s Day has a long and troubled past. Present day celebrations stem from the Christian celebration of Valentine of Rome, who was imprisoned and killed under the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius. At this time Rome had not adopted the Christian faith. Story also has it that the Emperor had banned young men from getting married so they would make better soldiers, and that Valentine was arrested and put to death for carrying out Christian marriages. Valentine was canonized in Rome in 496 AD, and in this same year February 14 was declared a Christian day of feasting in St. Valentine’s honour, which also conveniently fell in line with the long-celebrated Roman fertility festival, Lupercalia.

From this history, Valentine’s Day has largely turned into the celebration (and commercialization) of romantic relationships. But – as I’m sure most of us know from experience – relationships are extremely complicated and change constantly. They can be difficult to describe or quantify. Their continuation or discontinuation happens for many reasons, and they frequently don’t fit into the mould celebrated on Valentine’s Day. But add the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation into the mix, and relationships – whether romantic in nature or not – can become even more complex because of how the ministry views some living circumstances and defines “spouse”.

According to the Employment and Assistance Act and the Employment and Assistance Act for Persons with Disabilities, the ministry can determine someone to be in a “marriage-like relationship” – regardless of how they define their personal living circumstances – if a) they have been cohabitating with someone for 3 consecutive months or 9 of the last 12 months, and b) their living circumstances resemble that of a spousal relationship. The ministry considers a number of factors when deciding if someone’s relationship meets their definition of “marriage-like”. Some factors are fairly straightforward. For example, if someone tells the ministry they are legally married or living with their partner in a marriage-like relationship, the ministry will define their relationship accordingly. However, others are much more convoluted. The ministry specifically looks at whether living circumstances demonstrate both social and familial interdependence as well as financial interdependence. The test of whether or not peoples’ social, familial and financial interdependence is consistent with a “marriage-like relationship” can include whether people share the burden of household chores, if they prepare and share meals together, if they do weekly shopping together, whether one is the emergency contact person for the other’s child, if they are on the same lease or share utility bills, and if they have joint bank accounts or credit cards.

You may be thinking, “Well wait a minute, that sounds pretty spot-on with me and my roommate’s interactions, with whom I have absolutely no romantic affiliation,” and that could very likely be the case. The ministry’s definition of “spouse” can easily be applied to non-conjugal living circumstances, which is extremely problematic in light of the ever-increasing cost of living and housing, shrinking rental stock, and abysmal income assistance and PWD assistance rates, as most people have no choice but to live with a roommate. In these situations people frequently rely on social, financial, and family-like support from their roommates and friends to meet their most basic needs, and this may qualify them as being in a “marriage-like relationship”. And while the legislation applies equally to relationships regardless of people’s gender, in our experience ministry accusations typically align with hetero-normative thinking, pointing fingers at male-female living situations more often than not. 

So what happens if the ministry determines that the living circumstances of two people qualify as a “marriage-like relationship”? Well, the two people will be required to open a joint file with the ministry. Their assistance rates will be adjusted accordingly, and their ongoing eligibility for assistance will be based on their combined income and assets. So, in the case that two people receiving basic income assistance are found to be in a spousal relationship, they would receive a maximum of $877.22 per month instead of $610 each, or $1220 for the household. However, if one of the people in the “marriage-like relationship” has income or assets above the allowable amount, both would be rendered ineligible for assistance.

This all-or-nothing approach to the provision of basic income supports has extremely negative consequences, forcing people into positions of dependence and financial precarity. As a result of the ministry’s definition of “spouse”, many people are forced to rely on past abusive partners, are cut off from assistance when an alleged spouse refuses to be subjected to income testing, are rendered homeless, are forced to concede a heterosexual or monogamous relationship when they identify as part of the LGBTQ community or are in polyamorous relationships, and ultimately make decisions about their personal relationships based on their need to survive instead of whom they choose to share their lives with.

TAPS advocates have long supported people in navigating the consequences of this discriminatory definition of spouse. So if you, or anyone you know, are being accused of being in a “marriage-like relationship”, or want more information about avoiding these accusations to begin with, don’t hesitate to connect with the income assistance advocacy project at TAPS at 250-361-3521.