featured Poverty

How on earth is this happening? Tim Blades on the sorry state of welfare in Nova Scotia

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Last night, at a well-attended screening of Jackie Torrens’ My Week on Welfare at the North End Library, Tim Blades talked about the state of welfare in Nova Scotia that he is all too familiar with, and especially about the claw backs of child support single mothers have to deal with, potentially exposing them to abusive ex-spouses.

Hello everyone, Thank you for coming out for this screening of My Week on Welfare. My name is Tim Blades. I am a member of BRAG (the Benefits Reform Action Group), a group of citizens concerned about the state of welfare in Nova Scotia. I am also a contributor to the Nova Scotia Advocate.

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There is also an anonymous series on the Nova Scotia Advocate called Lives on Welfare, where people share their personal stories about surviving on welfare. For that series, my name is “John”.

At the end of my speech, there will be a web address where you can access all of the articles, documents, and other information mentioned in my speech, as well the speech itself.

When discussing this event on social media, we invite you to use of the hashtags #RaiseTheRates #FacesOfNSWelfare or #BenefitsReformAction. In addition you can search for those hashtags on social media to view personal stories from people who live or have lived dealing with our welfare system. We also have a display set up featuring some of those stories. Please feel free to share your story on social media, using the same hashtags.

To live in poverty is to live a life where your health and safety are compromised. As we saw with Robin’s story, those who are on ESIA (Employment Support and Income Assistance, or “welfare”)  often live in substandard housing. The current shelter allowances for those on welfare are $535 for a single person, $570 for two people, and $620 for 3 or more people. These rates are supposed to include power and heat/HW.

Sometimes a person is allotted just $300 for shelter. The current shelter/rent allowances are based on 1995 rates. With these shelter rates, monies from other areas of a client’s budget (Personal Allowance or “Special Needs” like Special Diet, Transportation or Phone), are reallocated to cover the insufficient shelter allowance or to pay a power bill.  As we’ve seen in the documentary, it’s getting harder and harder for clients to procure these “Special Needs” funds. All of this can, and often does, lead to people living in poor quality housing, going without food or medication, which puts further strain on our food banks and our healthcare system.

Recently, Feed Nova Scotia reported that food bank usage has jumped 20.9% in the last year.  56% of food bank clients are welfare recipients. Feed Nova Scotia receives $12,000 annually from the Province of Nova Scotia, merely 1/3 of 1 percent of its 3.5 million dollar annual operating budget.

Now let’s talk about child support. As mentioned during Sherreace’s portion of the documentary, welfare recipients do not get to keep a single cent of child support. 100% goes to the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services (DCS). As a welfare recipient, you have two options: You can sign over your payments to DCS, and the money will go to DCS. Your cheque is unaffected. Payments can also be made directly to you, by the non-custodial parent. In this case DCS deducts 100% of the child support from your monthly cheque.

While neither option is good – How can we call it “Child Support” when the money doesn’t support a child?–problems are rampant with the second option. I wrote an article in the Nova Scotia Advocate with the help of Jackie Torrens. In the article, Jackie explains how DCS would deduct the money from her cheque, even when her ex didn’t pay. In cases like this, the welfare client has to make attempts to procure payment from the non-custodial parent. As Jackie wrote, this is not only a further financial burden for the parent; it can also put the welfare client in a position where they have to deal with an ex who was abusive (in her case, physically abusive). As Jackie writes, “It brought him more into my life and my baby’s life. We needed less of him, not more.”

The child support claw back is not unique to Nova Scotia. This practice is found in almost every welfare system in Canada, the exceptions being BC (which ended the practice in 2015) and Ontario, which ended the claw back this year. The Ontario government (Liberals) states that parents are more likely to pay child support if they know that their children will directly benefit from the money. In other words, they will pay their child support, if the money goes to supporting their children. Ontario also states that combating child poverty is vital to their  economic plan to strengthen Ontario as a province.

My answer to the child support issue is simple: end the child support claw back. Allow welfare clients to keep 100% of their child support. Allow Child Support to support children. Ending the child support claw back would put 4 million dollars into our Nova Scotia economy. That is, on average, $167 a month per child on the system. That is money for clothing, a school trip, or a birthday present. It could even be used for a child’s special diet, since DCS doesn’t fund special diets for children.

Recently, our Premier has promised to “enhance our Maintenance and Enforcement program to ensure parents entitled to child support get that support.” If he is sincere, then our provincial government must end the child support claw back for welfare recipients. Ending the claw back would also help prevent situations like Jackie’s from happening. 

A recent report from the CBC states that women in Nova Scotia are returning to abusive relationships to avoid poverty. The article cited the shelter allowances for welfare clients. I showed this article to a friend, who has worked at various women’s shelters. I asked her “How on earth is this happening?” All my friend could muster was “It happens. I’ve seen it happen.”

In essence, these women (many with children) have to choose between themselves being abused, or having their children live in poverty.  It’s a brutal choice to make. I realize that when a woman has to choose between abuse or poverty, we are failing as a society. We must do better. The CBC article clearly shows that there is indeed a connection between poverty and safety; poverty and mental/physical health.

Since 2015, the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services has been involved in an ongoing welfare reform. Millions of dollars has been spent on out-of-province firms, focus groups and surveys. In regards to healthcare, crime, lost productivity, etc, etc, poverty costs Nova Scotians between 1.5 and 2.2 billion dollars annually.

In the recent Provincial budget, no increases to ESIA were announced. Welfare rates will remain stagnant for at least the next year. A stagnant rate is as good as a decrease when you consider inflation. With everything we know about the effects of poverty, raising the rates to an adequate, liveable level is the morally correct and fiscally responsible thing for our province to do. There is no doubt of that.

Thank you.

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