Dear Minister Kelly Regan,
I am writing this open letter to address different issues with the Employment Support and Income Assistance program (ESIA) system in Nova Scotia, which is often referred to as welfare.
First, I want to take this opportunity to tell you a bit about myself and my experience of being a poverty advocate for the past six years of my life. I am a contributor to the Nova Scotia Advocate, where I write about poverty issues and social isolation.
I am also the chair of a group called the Benefits Reform Action Group. Here is an article I have written about this group. BRAG is fighting for changes in the ESIA program. I am associated with other anti-;poverty groups as well, such as the Community Society to End Poverty and the Community Advocates Network.
In a nutshell we poverty advocates have seen the following:
- The income assistance rates have been frozen for three out of four years, with only a $20.00 increase in one year. This hardly makes a dent in our extremely low budgets.
- Income assistance clients losing their special needs allowances left and right.
- Income assistance clients coming out of their annual reviews with cuts to their allowances.
- Caseworkers acting aggressively to get clients to come in for their annual reviews.
- Caseworkers deciding not to accept doctors notes for special diets etc. at face value, and further questioning doctors’ recommendations.
- Affordable housing defined according to big wig landlords, but not being affordable for poor people.
- Persons with disabilities whose situations are unlikely to ever change getting treated by the ESIA system unfairly.
You have been in politics for a long time and you have had your own interactions with the department of Community Services. No doubt your constituency office, like all others in Nova Scotia, has been swamped with complaints about the department. Also, between 2009 and 2013 when the former NDP government was in power, you were the Community Services critic for the Liberals, throughout the time that Denise Peterson-Rafuse was Minister of Community Services.
Now with you being the Minister of Community Services you are in a position to make changes.
In my daily life I talk to first voice people who are clients of ESIA programs/services and they have all in one way or another experienced problems, and had negative experiences with the ESIA program.
Many ESIA clients have lost special needs allowances they had been receiving for the longest time and others got cut off from income assistance for no reason. It is my hope that you will help solve the many problems different clients are having with the system. Here is a story I wrote about my own experiences with a caseworker arguing with my doctor, and I am far from the only one to have this happen.
Many people cannot work full time because of their disabilities. Also some, if not many persons with disabilities cannot even work part-time. Each situation is different and unique. The ESIA system/program is not set up to take this into account when it comes to decisions being made in clients’ cases.
Minister Regan, if you are open to suggestions on how to improve the system there is another article, in which I give what I consider is a real neat suggestion of how to solve the problems: Why I support an annual guaranteed income.
Something else I need to bring to your attention is the fact that the annual review process scares us and in some cases it makes us feel uncomfortable attending because of the attitudes of caseworkers.We also worry that we are going to come out of these reviews with cuts made to our income assistance allowances. Please see my article All that’s wrong with the annual review and how to begin to fix it.
As you can tell from my letter, there are many systemic issues with the ESIA program which need to be fixed. In addition to that, the allowance levels need to increase. At present the shelter allowance is up to $535.00 and with the way the current system is set up, not everyone who depends on the program receives that much.
The personal allowance is only $275.00. Since 2011, it has been getting harder for clients with disabilities to get approved for their special needs. Also, in the current system the $35.00 telephone allowance is defined as a special need. This need should be defined as a regular necessity that is automatically part of a client’s budget.
Also since 2011, clients have been having difficulties getting approved for transportation allowance coverage. When you live in place like HRM, having a bus pass is important for feeling like you are part of your community. This is why the $78.00 for a Metro Transit Bus needs to become a part of a client’s regular income assistance allowance.
The last and final point I want to bring up in this letter is that the Liberal Government has been working on a so-called ESIA transformation. However, advocates are finding that the department is secretive about what is really happening.
It is my hope that as new minister you will investigate what is happening with this and that you will share this information with poverty advocates and people on income assistance.
I will end this letter by expressing the hope that you will be able to make the much needed changes to the ESIA program/system, so that those who have no choice in life but to depend on the system can live better lives.
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