Despite a tight rental market, especially in the capital city area, the housing allowance for social assistance recipients has remained unchanged since 2013.
That comes despite the fact the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission has allowed landlords to raise rents 5.2 per cent over the same period. Don't forget as well, the 27 MLAs who set that rate are now making close to six per cent more.
Auditor General Jane MacAdam noted in her annual report to the legislature the allowance for food, clothing, and personal requirements has remained unchanged for over a decade. This comes despite the fact both rates are mandated to be reviewed annually.
Anytime rates are reviewed by a government agency, the result is usually an increase. When Wes Sheridan was finance minister, he guided a bill through the legislature that tied increases in property taxes and government fees to the consumer price index. That means such fees rise automatically, giving the government added revenue without the embarrassment of a public debate on why such fees are rising.
However, for 10 years, the government has apparently calculated that no increase in the food and clothing allocation was warranted. The food allowance is based on the cost of something called the national nutritious food basket. According to Health Canada, the food basket "describes the quantity (and purchase units) of approximately 60 foods that represent a nutritious diet for individuals in various age and gender groups."
The Island allocation is for 70 per cent of the Atlantic average cost. In other words, it is just perfectly fine in the eyes of the 27 MLAs (who all got that raise almost six per cent with approximately half of them getting a car at taxpayer's expense), that Islanders drawing social assistance should only be able to buy 70 per cent of what is needed to maintain a healthy diet.
The audit shows the number of social services recipients has been in the 3,700 range for the last five years and total payments have been in the range of $34 million. MacAdam noted almost 95 per cent of the payments are regular monthly allowances for housing, shelter, food or personal requirements.
The auditor general said the Social Assistance Act requires an annual report to the assembly - something that has not been complied with, although she said in the past some information is contained in the department's annual report. However, he noted the department has not issued the required report in the last four years.
That may sound minor, but it is a legal requirement. Try ignoring a legal obligation and it's a sure bet somebody will be knocking at your door a lot sooner than four years. The reporting is required for a reason, namely so Island taxpayers can have a yardstick as to how the department is doing. Given the embarrassing information uncovered by the auditor general, it is understandable why they were in no hurry to report.
The allowance needs to be tied to something that is easily measured. If the government can justify using the consumer price index to raise taxes and fees, why is the same yardstick not suitable when determining support for our most vulnerable residents?
- Andy Walker is an Island-based writer and commentator.