Only one in five low-income families in Canada has taken up the federal government’s offer of free money for their children’s post-secondary education.

Six years after the launch of the Canada Learning Bond, the families of only 212,000 children, or 19 per cent of those eligible, have taken advantage of the benefit, said a new study released this month by Toronto’s Omega Foundation.

Through the learning bond, Ottawa contributes a maximum of $2,000 to a low-income child’s tax-sheltered Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP).

As long as a family has an after-tax household income under $40,970 a year, it can open an RESP account for a child born in 2004 or after, apply and get the money, with no strings attached. Unclaimed money goes back to Ottawa’s coffers.

Yet as of 2009, more than 880,000 children, including 60,000 in Toronto, had not claimed the bond they were entitled to.

“The federal program is benefiting the high-income families, when the low-income families can benefit from it most,” said May Wong, Omega’s executive director and a report co-author.

“The money can make a big difference in their children’s academic aspirations.”

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