featured Poverty

Nova Scotia MLAs challenged to try living on a welfare budget

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Nova Scotia’s MLAs are being challenged to get a taste of life on welfare. Actor and documentary maker Jackie Torrens would like MLA’s of all three parties to spend a week living on a welfare food budget of about $4.00 per day.

Actor/writer/filmmaker Jackie Torrens.

In Torrens’  2015 documentary My week on welfare she  takes that welfare challenge herself, and finds out how stressful and hard it is to make ends meet on such a minuscule allowance.

I don’t extend the challenge in an aggressive way, or an angry way. I sincerely want our MLAs to have a tiny glimpse of what people on social assistance in this province are dealing with on a daily basis,” says Torrens.

“I don’t think these MLAs are ill-intentioned people and I believe that the problem of poverty sincerely bothers them, but they lack real information,” Torrens says.

MLA’s would be spending between three and four dollars per day on food, Torrens explains, and they would keep a food diary to document how they are making out. We’re talking just food here, this tiny allowance puts things like shampoo, household cleaners, tampons and condiments simply out of reach.

Four dollars per day is technically a bit more than individuals on social assistance get, Torrens points out, but hey, let’s keep it simple.

“For anyone in government who wants to give this little exercise a try, it could be the starting point of understanding what living on welfare is like. I think if you  lack this honest taste of reality it is really hard to make informed decisions how to help the people who are in real need.” says Torrens.

“I think all three parties need an education in this area,” Torrens says. “I would absolutely support them in a heartfelt way.”

“I don’t see it as a perfect solution, just an effort to get some reality going,” she says. “How much do people on welfare get for food, and how is it possible to try and keep yourself fed on that kind of budget.”

“I am hoping such a small taste of reality will whet people’s curiosity. Everyone has opinions but people lack basic information,” Torrens says.

Click here to stream My Week on Welfare.  Contact Jackie through the My Week on Welfare Facebook page.     
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  1. I can’t express how much I hope the MLA’s in Nova Scotia will take up this challenge. The most eye opening experience a person can have, next to actually being a recipient on welfare.

    Many years ago I participated in what was then called, The Poverty Game. We were mostly a group of Youth Care Workers working in Moncton New Brunswick. Claudette Bradshaw was the facilitator who at the time the Director of Head Start, prior to her political career. The so called game, designed by those on social assistance, was similar to what is now the online, Make The Month, that gives people the opportunity to get a good idea of what it’s like to be on welfare. I don’t recall any of the participants being MLA”S or politicians, and I doubt there are ever many who participate in this activity. Psychologists have noted that statistically those who have money are not interested or concerned with those who have not, living in poverty, because a sense of entitlement in developed.

    If you quit The Poverty Game, it was seen as the equivalent to committing suicide in one way or another. After the game, we were all asked if we’d “cheated”. Cheating meant you did not claim any extra monies, etc., to Social Services that you’d obtained, (i.e. working under the table, etc.) in order to attempt to keep whatever we could manage to find until our next monthly assistance cheque, because it was never enough to get us through.

    Every participant in our group was very obviously stressed during game and this especially began directly after receiving our monthly cheque, because immediately upon receiving the money, it was gone, once the bills were paid, making for no allowances for emergencies, or for even the basic necessities.

    Interestingly this game had been presented to a participating group of Catholic nuns. The nuns also put up their hand when asked the same question, if they’d “cheated”.

    One of my deepest wishes is that every MLA in Nova Scotia and every politician participate in this eye opening experience.
    I am greatly encouraged and deeply admire Jackie’s social conscience and activism for social change. Thank you Jackie Torrens!

  2. I would like to see this go even further.Have them live in a rooming house-complete with shared kitchen,bathroom,mice and bedbugs (throw in a few crack heads and severely mentally ill people).Because that’s about all you can get in HRM for $535 a month total shelter allowance,which MUST cover power,or that comes out food allowance.Oh and there’s no TV,WIFI ,and they can’t go anywhere unless its close enough to walk because bus allowance has to be approved by having proof of 12 medical appointments per month.

    1. That’s an real important point Leslie. Fortunately I live in the country where rents are less but there are other drawbacks.
      Gary’s comment below came to my mind after reading your comment. If only politicians, policy makers etc., could walk in another’s shoes there might be some kind of collective spiritual awakening! But I’m not holding my breath!

  3. I was on assistance… I had to cheat… Just to feed my child… I had no choice! I’m now in debt to the Nova Scotia government 20,000 for making sure my child was fed because the food allowance we got was under $100 a month and you can only go to the food bank once a month… The only protein you get from the food bank is one pound of hamburger, 1 carton of eggs, 1 pack of hotdogs and 2 cans of beans… For an entire month! How can anyone survive on that and not cheat?!? I am now not allowed on assistance without them giving me even less money so I get to live in poverty and still owing the government $20,000 barely able to feed my now 2 children because I had to cheat the system to stay off the streets.. life financially in Nova Scotia is stressful​ enough and the only thing the government is doing about it is making it worse! Get a clue MLA’s get to know the problems and the people your dealing with instead of worrying about how many cars you have!

  4. It’s not only welfare, try living on disability pension $800 a mth which doesn’t cover medical unlike wefare

    1. Exactly Janet, I have a terminal illness & forced to live on $670 per month, but when you live in Alberta you get $1700!!!

  5. Sarah Byrne My month and a half on welfare last year was very difficult. I was proud of the fact that after being raised on welfare, I never needed it…until I did. I rent a room costing me $500./month but because it was a room and not my own apartment, welfare decided, in their infinite wisdom that my rent should only be $233./ month. Silly landlord for overcharging me, right? And they also decided that I only need $265./month for personal expenses. So I got a total of $498 a month. Keep in mind that I paid $500./month in rent. Then my worker decided that he would add to my humiliation and treat me like I was a criminal stealing from his own personal bank account, it got so bad that I had to report him to his supervisor who was just as bad as my worker telling me that it was my fault for falling on hard times and perhaps I should have mapped my life out better and that my failure is not their problem. But on the other side of the coin, I got massive support from outside sources like the wonderful people at the YMCA Employment Agency in Halifax who worked tirelessly to help me upgrade me resume so I can find suitable work and helped get me a bus pass so I can get to job interviews. The great people at the Brunswick Street Mission who’s clothing bank outfitted me for the winter and the kind ladies at Dress for Success in Halifax who when I finally got a job, dressed me up like a million bucks and boosted my confidence 100%. I think challenging the MLA’s to eat on a welfare budget is not really enough. They need to feel and experience having everything ripped away from them, the fear that comes with not knowing if you can eat or pay rent; otherwise how will they ever truly understand any of it. Unlike myself, some people don’t have a choice but to rely on government assistance and the last thing they need is to be made to feel like it’s all their fault for being a financial drain.

  6. The social workers that deal with welfare recipients tell their clients that welfare is not a permanent solution, yet some people remain clients for most of their adult life due to their reproduction rates. Only these people receive enough money on welfare to actually pay their rent and buy enough food to sustain themselves and their children from month to month.

    Below are the benefits one can expect (without any sort of guarantee, I might add.)
    Content from http://novascotia.ca/coms/employment/income_assistance/BasicAssistance.html

    Basic Income Assistance Rates
    You may be eligible for basic Income Assistance if you have a budget deficit. Having a budget deficit means that the income you have to pay for your basic needs is less than the amount you may receive on income assistance. The amount of assistance you receive depends on your circumstances.

    Shelter Allowance
    Family Size Rent or Own a Home Boarding
    1 $300* $223
    2 $570 $242
    3+ $620 $282
    * Up to $535 under certain circumstances

    Personal Allowance
    Shelter situation Adult Dependent child age 18 to 20 Dependent child to age 18
    Rent, own home, board $255 $255 $133 *
    In hospital 30 days or more $105 $105 Not applicable
    In a residential rehabilitation program $81 $81 Not applicable
    * If you do not get the Nova Scotia Child Benefit or the National Child Benefit for a dependent child under the age of 18, you can ask for a Child Benefit Adjustment (CBA). You must file your income tax each year to get your Child Tax Benefits. Ask your caseworker for more information.

    Clients are given enough money to POSSIBLY pay their rent, but most times they must sacrifice most if not all of their food allowance to do this. Given that most clients are a single person attempting to rent an apartment, and even the “inexpensive”option of a bachelor apartment can be as “low” as $500/month, they are left with a meager $55 for food for an entire month.

    I agree that this is by no means a solution at all, let alone a permanent one, but this system has been a failing one for many years, based on the fact that one cannot be expected to maintain a residence in order to receive the next cheque, but must starve themselves from other basic needs in order to do so.

    I could go on and on, but I hope you get my point. This “solution” causes more problems than it fixes. (Anything except 0 is greater than 0.)

  7. Sarah thank you so much for sharing your experience.
    Poverty is not an issue of morality. This however is seen time and time again where individuals are left feeling they are less than, morality deficient and subject to a punitive system because of being poor. This is a historical hangover that comes from the days of the industrial revolution, when people were put in “poor houses” if they did not have work, and punished for their lack of ‘moral’ virtue, not being able or willing to work. Combine this with the intrinsic belief in the Protestant Work Ethic, that subscribes to the myth, if we work hard enough we will be rewarded monetarily etc. This is very far from reality, and we don’t have to look far to see that people are not always punished for bad behaviour nor are they rewarded for good behaviour. Fact is many are rewarded for bad behaviour and punished for good.

    Many who are the working poor work harder because of the false belief that if they work harder they’ll get ahead or be rewarded. And those not working, living in poverty for a myriad of reasons are simply guilted and shamed by a system and a society that is self-serving and based on the premise he/she who has the gold rules.

    The perpetuated myth that poverty is a moral issue must stop now, if anything is to change.

    Most of our educated fools in our system turn a blind eye to this. Most have been privileged right from the get go completely out of touch and aren’t wanting to loose what they have, and perpetuate the lie that it’s just the right thing to do to continue to punish the poor.

  8. Hi totally agree with the above. I can’t imagine living on so little. To expand this problem I also want to speak about the working poor. My son taught junior high a few years ago and when we visited with them in Halifax, he related about two brothers who really didn’t have decent footwear, sneakers that had no back. He began offering one boy food and it was never refused. Mom’s husband had passed away and she did work but didn’t make much. He began taking an extra lunch to school and pushing for the school’s food program to alleviate the problem. They could give vouchers to the cafeteria three days a week but what about the other two? Sometimes I guess we don’t realize how lucky the middle class is, I have a mom and daughter next door who struggles. It’s not that she doesn’t want to work, it’s just she doesn’t make enough. I can see welfare probably is even worse. Somehow we as a community, province, country have to attack these problems so that these people can climb out of an impossible situation for future generations. There are no easy answers but I’m guessing it would start with a good education.

  9. Try being on sick leave pay as well…this year 55% did not cover my medical needs or my bills and it’s more then one receives on social assistance. When my oldest daughter was born in 1993 I was on social assistance for a couple years and I struggled financially, mentally, I was young, my child often did without things she should not have had to. Her dad was absent financially and physically and had no idea how his child was raised. I was lucky to land a babysitting job for a high school mom, which paid an extra 200 a month and we were able to spend that on food as well as the 125 a month they allowed for me and my daughter for food. This was back in 1995 I sure hope it’s still not that hard. I was lucky to land affordable child care when my daughter was 3 and a full time job on minimum wage and through the years I often worked three job she to provide for my daughter. It has had a toll on my health , but my career is now paying a fair wage and my youngest daughter never goes without her needs or healthy food. I regret not having that life for my oldest. I really hope they continue to support families with afffordable child care so parents can afford to work and give them that pride of feeling successful and also encouragement to do better for their children. And when they can’t work for mental, physical reason Not be such a struggle. Children’s needs should be met always. Not their wants , but their needs.

  10. Great idea! I hope they are up to the challenge.
    It’s important that they have no phone, car or internet for them to even begin getting a taste of what that life is like.

  11. I wish they would do this but one week on welfare and one week on disability both are hard I had to be on assistance until it was deemed I could no longer work and was put on disability both are bad on assistance living in lowincome housing I was given just over 300 a month for my son and I yes they paid for my medications and rent was only 175 which they paid for me so I was left with child tax and 300 to pay power groceries and anything else my toddler might need on disability my rent was raised by 75 and I now pay for my med which can be up to 300 a month it’s actually left me less to live on wish all government would do this for a week each both federal government and provincial

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