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Lives on welfare: No money at all for young couple, but plenty of stigma

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – One day when I was walking along Spring Garden Road recently I was approached by this couple who recognized me as a Nova Scotia Advocate writer. They asked me if I could sit down with them so they could give me their story to write about in the Advocate.

This young couple in their thirties depend on income assistance. They talked about how they are having problems with the mental health system, and how they both experience a combination of welfare stigma and mental health stigma.

Just like most income assistance clients who tell me their stories they asked not to be identified.

The woman told me that growing up she always was a slow learner in school and that she has been labeled as living with developmental disabilities, something she has learned to manage. She also has issues to do with depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia.

Because of this it is very difficult to manage most stress that is involved with working a full time job. However, she can handle part time work of less than 20 hours per week if somebody would hire her.

The man also has issues dealing with depression and anxiety. He has been diagnosed as being bipolar, and he takes medication for that. This medication causes weight gains, only allowing him to walk slowly in his day to day life as well. This is what got to him to quit his job and got him on Canada Pension.

He is also a diabetic, and having this disability prevents him from taking the walks that people who are diabetics should be taking. He however does take walks when he feels up to it.

Both feel that they receive only the bare minimum support in their efforts to manage their mental and physical health issues.  

They receive the $535 standard shelter allowance, and that has to cover the cost of rent for the both of them, since they are married.  Then they receive $275 for a living allowance each, which adds up to $550.00 for the two of them together.

Together they get a special diet allowance of $150.00, however, that $150.00 has to cover the dietary needs for both of them. They get a single telephone allowance of $35.00 between the two of them.

That all adds up to $1270 per month. The $770 Canada Pension the man receives is clawed back entirely.

This is how they spend that $1270.

Their rent for their one bedroom apartment is 650.00 a month plus power. The power bill comes to $50.00 a month on the budget billing program. Their basic phone bill per month is 35.00.

Then they have to buy their bus passes which cost $78.00 x 2 = $156.00. Their transportation is not covered as a special need and needs to come out of their living allowance. Bus passes are essential in order to have transportation to travel to the drop-ins and soup kitchens where people in their situations travel as well as for attending medical and counselling appointment. Otherwise, if they did not spend that amount they tell me that they would be socially isolated at 100%.

At this time they have $379 left to meet their dietary needs. For her, because of mental health issues she has, she pays $49.00 a month for Omega 3 supplements. These supplements help her keep her mental issues/symptoms under control. Policies of the Department of Community Services Employment Support and Income Assistance (ESIA) program do not allow a caseworker to cover this Omega as a special need.   

After all this they have $330 left. That amount pretty much covers the remainder of the husband’s special diet, being diabetic, plus other groceries they have to get for an entire month. That $330.00 also has to cover clothing, and personal hygiene products. One thing he needs are diabetic socks. Income assistance will not cover the cost of his diabetic socks as a special need. They appealed that decision, and also tried to qualify for additional special diet allowances, but the appeal was denied and Legal Aid advised against taking it to the Supreme Court.

Once bills are paid and the groceries plus clothing and hygiene products are bought there is nothing left for them to come and go on.  This is the reason why this couple has no choice but to depend on the drop-ins and soup kitchens in order to even try and have life.

Even as a married couple they feel they cannot live life together as a normal married couple because of the way the ESIA system works. They’re together 24/7 and feel that experience is not healthy for them.

When they go to the soup kitchens, the drop-ins, and when they make their monthly visits to their food bank, they go to these things together as a couple.  On weekends and holidays when the drop-ins and soup kitchens are closed, they spend all weekend together, and also on holidays keep to themselves socially isolated in their apartment.

They feel their circumstances give them no choice but to have to do that. They told me that all of their friends and social contacts in life are people they know from standing in line at the food bank, attending the drop-ins and soup kitchens.

She says that many of the middle class and upper class friends she had growing up believed that people with mental health issues just do not want to work. As a teenager people told her should live in a group home. The reason they rudely give her is because of her developmental challenges. People who do not understand her situation told her right to her face that they want her off the welfare system and that she should get a fulltime job.  


  1. It is too bad they weren’t aware of the discount bus pass available for households with combined incomes of $33,000 or less. I believe it is full for this year, but they should contact HRM to see if there is a waiting list. That way it would cost $78 a month for both of them. Hope this info helps.


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