featured Poverty

Lives on welfare. From social assistance recipient to social worker

young-mother-studying-at-home-with-babyKJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – We continue our Lives on Welfare series with Suzanne’s story. This all happened in the late nineties. But I am still told of caseworkers who make arbitrary decisions and throw up unnecessary barriers. Not all caseworkers, but too many.

In a way Suzanne was lucky. The days that Community Services routinely supported students pursuing a secondary education are long gone. Of the 26,000 Nova Scotians on income assistance, in the last two years only six have applied for a program that allows them to continue getting help while attending university or college, Local Xpress reported earlier this year.  

Suzanne’s story

My first experience with social assistance was when I applied for welfare when I was seven months pregnant. This was in 1999. My parents were working class, not wealthy people. My dad worked as a quarry worker, my mom was an Avon lady.

After high school I worked minimum wage jobs for a couple of years, until I decided I wanted to go back to school. Three weeks into school I became unexpectedly pregnant.

When I applied for assistance I was told that I didn’t qualify because I was a student and received a student loan. When I said that student loans are not for the summer, and they are not for raising babies, the caseworker said that this is the policy. So I asked to speak to his supervisor.

The supervisor kept saying “I know it’s a hard decision, but those are the rules.”I said “it’s not a matter of choice, I have to feed my child, this means I have to drop out of university.” My student loan was just over $10,000, the tuition was $8,000, and I said you can’t live on $2,000 for a year with a baby, that’s not doable.

I was crying. I wanted to go to school, I wanted to do better. I had finished my first year of university, I had three more years to go. I said “you are telling me that it’s ok to stay home and do nothing, and you don’t allow me to better myself.”

I called (then Premier) John Hamm’s office, and I called my local MLA, and my MP. I am still waiting for John Hamm and the MLA to get back to me, but the receptionist for the MP called back. She said you must have been mistaken, your caseworker says he never said that.

Anyways, I got my appointment, and I did get on social assistance. I didn’t have to drop out after all. I asked the receptionist what happened, and she explained that caseworkers call that screening. He figured you’d be ok, that you could figure out something else, she told me.

When  I moved to another town in my last year I had a different case worker, and she said you have not been receiving things you are entitled to. I was supposed to get help to pay for childcare, but I ended up paying for it out of mys student loan. I was supposed to get money for travel, and I wasn’t getting it.

I am a social worker now. I was going to be a teacher, but my experience of receiving social assistance is.the reason I went into social work. I worked for Community Services for a while, but not anymore.

I got off social assistance, but no credit to Community Services. And I know I am incredibly lucky. I met my husband and he supported me through my social work studies.

The reason I didn’t take no for an answer was mostly because it was my first experience with the system. That was why I felt so entitled and confident. That was my privilege.  Most people who’d been on assistance for a long time would just have accepted the caseworker’s decision.



  1. Our governments are supposed to protect us from arbitrary decisions but 95% of the time our government ( public servants) don’t believe the people who pay them deserve their protection from unqualified, over zealous or just plain holier than thou government workers with their total, unlawful judgements. This is such a large scale problem in NS with ALL aspects of community services. Example: Child welfare workers ( the majority, not all) are sooooo anxious to save children from parents that they completely overlook that, for the most part, the kids that they go to great lengths to illegally abduct, (save) are worse off being in their custody than they ever were at home. Such great harm has been done to NS kids by arbitrary decisions of government workers ( public employees). AND YET, despite the law that says the best interests of the children is paramount, lawyers and other government workers are proud to help cover up these arbitrary decisions and protect individuals who, ( if not government employees) would be guilty of criminal acts. Not all workers, of course, are at their jobs just foaming at the mouth to look down their noses at you, pass their personal judgement ( despite what the law is) on you, but they might as well be for looking the other way. Actually though, those are the workers that do get disciplined and ostracized by our corrupt system of government. The worse part of this to me .. the public who pays them son’t seem to give a crap they are paying people who simply do not / WILL NOT do the work they are supposed to do in a lawful manner.

  2. I was very active around this issue over the past 16 or 17 years since it became an issue. I got Family Benefits and student aid back in the late 1980s and I earned a BA. More recently, I did a master’s in adult education and wrote two in-depth research reports on this topic. I also lobbied the David Morse, then Minister of Community Services, who ultimately said that the biggest problem in his view is the need for housing and child care. So he did something about that. He introduced rent supplements for university students who are single parents. Hardly anybody knows about that. Around the same time, the rather oddly named “Career Seek” program was launched. I wonder if it’s ever been evaluated. I often hear from people that they know nothing about it, and the materials about it from Community Services make it sound impossible to get into, so no wonder so few people have used it. Their pamphlet says that before the caseworker can approve the person for the program, they have to show how they’re going to pay for their entire four years at school, and show how their degree will lead directly to a job. Just those two requirements would be enough to discourage most recipients, and yet, in practice, the first one is totally do-able with a little help and some number-crunching. The second one is much more complicated, obviously.

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