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JIM VIBERT: Changes leave Nova Scotia welfare recipients poorer

Jim Vibert
Jim Vibert - SaltWire Network

For more than five years, Nova Scotia’s welfare system — sorry, it’s income assistance (IA) program — has been undergoing a transformation which, upon completion, leaves IA recipients poorer than they were before the whole thing began.

That’s right Nova Scotia, comparing apples to apples, or income assistance rates then and now — adjusted for inflation — Nova Scotians dependent on IA were better off before the government undertook its grand redesign of welfare.

If the goal was to improve the lot of the poorest Nova Scotians, the grand design is an epic failure, made so by the steadfast refusal of the government to increase IA rates to a level adequate for a family to live without want for the basics like nutritious food and decent housing.

Halifax lawyer and social justice advocate Vince Calderhead, like many who work with disadvantaged Nova Scotians, waited those five years while the government deflected criticism about its inadequate IA rates by pointing to the transformation as the ultimate fix.

Those social justice advocates now make the case that the ultimate fix was the ultimate ruse; that the so-called transformation of income assistance is nothing short of a social policy scandal.

“Nova Scotia has an international human rights obligation to progressively improve social assistance adequacy — it is now clear that we are regressing in terms of adequacy,” said Calderhead, who did the math to prove it.

Comparing IA rates in late 2014 when the transformation began, with rates announced in the recent budget and fully effective in 2020, Calderhead found that IA recipients would be better off if the province had foregone the whole exercise and merely increased rates to keep up with the cost of living.

For example, a single mom with one child received $903.53 monthly in IA in late 2014. She’ll get $940.33 a month in 2020 when the new rates are effective, for an increase of $36.80. However, had her 2014 rate been adjusted for inflation, it would be $997.50 by now. In other words, this mom and child are, in real terms, $57.17 per month poorer post-transformation that they were before it all began.

The same is true across the board. A single IA recipient with a disability has $5.70 less monthly purchasing power after the transformation than before; a single, able-bodied recipient is $10.26 a month poorer; and a couple with two kids is $70.34 a month worse off after the grand transformation than they were before it started.

The government points to other aspects of the income assistance transformation that help recipients, including changes that allow IA recipients to keep more earned income before IA benefits are clawed back.

Indeed, in most of the examples the government provided to show off how incomes have changed for IA recipients as a result of the transformation, earned income was included, so the examples showed increased income.

But the 90 per cent of IA recipients, who don’t or can’t work, are just getting poorer.

In the legislature Tuesday, Premier Stephen McNeil claimed he can look every Nova Scotian “in the face” and say that after five and a half years as premier, he’s left no Nova Scotian behind. But clearly many Nova Scotians reliant on income assistance are falling farther behind.

NDP Leader Gary Burrill raised the premier’s ire by citing a raft of economic indicators that suggest serious economic problems in Nova Scotia.

He noted food bank use is growing faster in Nova Scotia than anywhere else in Canada, that Nova Scotians suffer food insecurity at greater rates than other Canadians and, most tellingly, that the province has the lowest median income in the nation.

Some correspondents tell me Nova Scotia is a poor province that can only do so much for its poorest citizens. That would seem to be the attitude of the provincial government as well, and as a result Nova Scotia is the only place in Canada where child poverty is increasing despite the federal Canada Child Benefit.

The government’s parsimony — as evidenced by sub-subsistence IA rates and a minimum wage that hovers at or near the bottom of the heap nationally — makes for lousy public policy.

While the poor bear the terrible burden of poverty through deprivation, inferior housing, hunger or poor nutrition and alienation from the mainstream, society as a whole bears the monetary costs associated with poverty.

Those costs only start with income assistance and other programs to “address” poverty. Poor living conditions lead to poor health, so poverty drives higher health-care costs. Alienation from the mainstream leads to trouble with the law and added costs in the justice system.

The biggest costs are the lost opportunities for thousands of poor kids, many of whom suffer academically due to the effects of poverty in their lives and are thereby sentenced to a lifetime of dependence on state assistance or inferior employment and poverty.

All told the real cost of poverty to Nova Scotians is estimated to be north of $2.5 billion a year.

If the province can’t find the moral grounds for providing income assistance at a level to raise people out of abject poverty, perhaps it should look to the economic arguments and the real costs of their choice to leave thousands of Nova Scotian families virtually destitute.

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