Back in 2013 when persons on income assistance started losing their special needs benefits a group was formed called the Special Needs Working Group. In it there were people on income assistance, people from the Dalhousie Legal Aid Services, and the social worker at the North End Community Health Clinic.
As time went on, other interested people concerned about the Employment Support and Income Assistance (ESIA) programs offered by the Department of Community Services became members.
A couple of years later the group found that the problems people on income assistance were having went above and beyond income assistance clients losing their special needs. There were issues like clients getting their income assistance benefits suspended for reasons that did not make sense, income assistance allowances being too low, and income assistance clients not being respected by caseworkers and other ESIA staff.
Several articles I have written for the Halifax Media Co-op and the Nova Scotia Advocate illustrate why a group like BRAG is necessary. Remember, when it comes to the articles on talking about what happened to me personally, I am not alone in losing my special diet or any special needs for that matter.
This is the whole reason as to why BRAG is needed. And that’s why the original Special Needs Working Group decided to change its name to the Benefits Reform Action Group.
What does BRAG do?
BRAG is set up as an advocacy group to improve the lives of people on income assistance. Doing advocacy work is something that people do not like to engage in much.
BRAG is advocating by making suggestions, recommendations and demands to MLA’S, Government and other staff of ESIA. There have also been times throughout the existence of BRAG that members have talked on radio shows, and did protest. Currently BRAG is exploring other ways to take action to advocate for change.
One piece of important work that BRAG has done recently is on June 7th of this year BRAG got to go before the Community Services Standing Committee. That committee is a group of MLAs who are supposed to oversee the department.
BRAG appeared along with three other organizations who are also advocating for change in poverty issues. These three other organizations were Dalhousie Legal Aid Services, Community Society to End Poverty, and ACORN Nova Scotia.
From my personal experiences of being on the system myself, and visiting the places (food banks and soup kitchens) where people on income assistance gather, the vibe I personally get is ESIA clients who gather at these places either do not know what the word advocacy means, or if they do know they cannot spell it.
Keep in mind that a lot of income assistance clients do not have the energy and confidence to advocate to make their living situations better.
The existence of BRAG is important because all disadvantaged persons need advocacy and support. Whatever any ESIA client’s reasons for being on income assistance, the system within itself makes all ESIA clients feel disadvantaged, if only for the very limited financial support it offers.
What does BRAG want?
In a nutshell BRAG is advocating for the following:
- Better allowances for people on income assistance to live on;
- The current $150.00 which income assistance clients are able to keep from their employment earnings to be raised to $500.00;
- Respecting the rights of ESIA clients with disabilities by ESIA caseworkers;
- For income assistance clients to be able to pursue post-secondary education;
- For the telephone allowance o be automatically funded to all clients and to stop treating a telephone as a special need.
More demands are added to the list all the time.
This BRAG list of demands came from Town hall meetings which the group hosted in Halifax/Dartmouth area back in fall/winter of 2014/2015. In these town hall meetings we heard from people on income assistance expressing problems they are having with the system. The list of demands was created by using their input.
Since these town hall meetings took place, the list has since been delivered to the office of the minister of Community Services. We were also able to get a meeting with Department of Community Services officials. BRAG got feedback letting us know that our list of demands will be considered in the current ESAI transformation which is taking place here in Nova Scotia.
Persons with disabilities who are receiving income assistance are not being treated with respect. You could say that another factor that explains the need for BRAG is that people with disabilities have a real need for advocacy.
For instance, persons with disabilities who are on income assistance are required in many cases to submit multiple documents to their caseworkers proving their disability. This is unfair to the clients, and this action of ESIA staff makes doctors and specialists feel overworked. For that reason BRAG is advocating to get this requirement stopped.
What needs to be understood by the ESIA policy people is that not all persons with disabilities are able to be employed full time in the regular job market. To persons with disabilities who are on the ESIA system, their income assistance benefit to them is their living allowance. The ESIA system needs to be set up in way where this is respected.
Other stories we hear at BRAG from first voice people who deal with being the ESIA system is how people on income assistance are prevented from getting a post-secondary education. Once you get a student loan, whether it is to go back to a community college or university, your income assistance gets suspended meaning you are off the system. This needs to be changed because the right to a post-secondary education is a right that all persons have.
People on welfare who are interested and are able to go to college and university should have that option. This is why BRAG is advocating having income assistance while attending either community college or university. After all, attending post-secondary education is a way for anyone to get a better job in their future.
A personal reflection
I want to end this article by talking a bit about my experiences of being the Chair of the group. I took over as chair when the former chair had to step down back in the winter of 2016. I had been advocating for ending poverty long enough that I feel I had gained the necessary skills.
Being the chair of BRAG gives me the opportunity to put this skill to work. Also, being a member a BRAG gives me the feeling that I am not alone in what happened to me regarding the ESIA system. I am supported by others who has had similar experiences.
Click here for a full list of demands that came out of the BRAG town halls.
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