Thursday, 21 November 2019
featured Poverty

Broad coalition of community groups demands increased welfare rates and meaningful consultation

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – 17 groups and individuals have signed off on a letter demanding that the Department of Community Services raise income assistance rates quickly and substantially. The loose coalition also wants real input in the secretive Community Services transformation.

This message was delivered during a brief and well attended press conference at the Dalhousie Legal Aid offices on Gottingen Street in Halifax.

From left to right: Elizabeth Goodridge, Christine Saulnier, Meghan MacBride, and Fiona Traynor. Photo Robert Devet

“We’re here today to to advise the government that first voice people and community groups, including women’s and family centres across this province, mental health providers, health professionals, lawyers  and activists are not satisfied with the current process,” said Fiona Traynor, a community legal worker at Dalhousie Legal Aid.

“This also includes developing an effective design, using a lens inclusive of human rights, the social determinants of health, gender and rural communities,” Traynor said.

As well, the group demands an immediate real increase in income assistance rates.

“The only true way to address systemic suppression and uphold human rights within the social assistance system it must begin with an immediate increase in the amount of support provided. All this needs to be done over a fairly short time frame,” said Christine Saulnier, director of the Nova Scotia chapter of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).

“Income Assistance amounts are astounding,” said Saulnier. “Even a family who receives additional support through the Canada Child Benefits is still looking at gaps that are near $9000. The Canada Child Benefits will lift some families and children out of poverty, but certainly not many.”

“As a social worker at the North End Community Health Centre I see daily how poverty impacts on people’s health,” said Meghan MacBride. “Community Services has released data that shows that 70% of its caseload has a disability. The current low rates of support allow people no way to focus on their health.”

Seeing a dietitian and getting counselling on chronic issues such as diabetes or heart disease, getting assessed for a sleep apnea machine, or buying a preparation for a colonoscopy, these things have become a luxury for people on income assistance,” MacBride said.

“The life of somebody on income assistance is a daily struggle to survive. There is no planning for the future, you’re really just trying to keep your head above water,” said Elizabeth Goodridge, who has first hand experience with Nova Scotia’s welfare system.

“If you have children then you have to deal with your constant worries about their survival as well,” said Goodridge. “Politicians and bureaucrats, no matter how well intentioned, are vastly out of touch with the lives of people living in poverty.”

“The system is demoralizing, and forces people into isolation. It’s living in survival mode daily, and to do so in a larger community that is completely unfamiliar with the realities of living in poverty. You must face the myths that income assistance is some kind of free ride and that poverty only happens to certain types of people,” said Goodridge.

The group wants the transformation process frozen while a six-months formal stakeholder consultation takes place. As well it wants a framework put in place for ongoing consultation beyond these first six months, and strong representation from people who are on income assistance (including support with childcare, travel etc.).

As well, the coalition demands independent reviews and annual reports while the transformation design is rolled out.

The coalition has communicated its demands to the department of Community Services, and has requested a response by mid-January.

This is urgent, Traynor told the Nova Scotia Advocate. “We all know that people are living so far below the poverty line that many people are not even really getting by, their health suffers, their mental health suffers and they have to constantly fight to get anything that they need out of that system.”

“This network of organizations and individuals came together because we were dissatisfied with the process of transformation to date. It wasn’t adequate. The government was meeting with different groups, but there was no reporting. When the government did include the community through their consultations we heard a lot of feedback that people did not feel that their voices were being heard in a real substantive way,” Traynor said.

Among the signatories are Women’s Centres Connect (representing nine centres across Nova Scotia), the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers, the North End Community Health Centre, the Nova Scotia Association of Black Social Workers, Imove / Uniacke Center for Community Development, Sisters of St. Martha, the Dartmouth Family Centre / Dartmouth North Community Food Centre, the Stepping Stone Association, the Schizophrenia Society of Nova Scotia, Maggie’s Place Family Resource Centre (Cumberland), Dalhousie Legal Aid, The Benefits Reform Action Group (BRAG), the Community Advocates Network, and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – NS.      

Read the coalition’s press release here.

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