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Open letter to Premier Stephen McNeil requesting a response to the Community Agenda for Social Assistance Adequacy and Reform

Wednesday February 5, 2018
Honourable Premier Stephen McNeil:

Please accept this letter in response to Brandon Grant’s letter to the community members who support the Community Agenda for Social Assistance Adequacy and Reform. We are a group of community organizations and individuals who understand the realities of life on social assistance in Nova Scotia and the policies that shape this system either through our work or our own first-hand experience.

We once again request that you, Premier McNeil, respond and agree to the requests contained in the Community Agenda. Since we released this document on December 15, 2017, more groups and individuals have shown their solidarity and commitment to this movement by signing onto the agenda. You will find the list of signatories at the end of this document.

First, as with our last letter, we have addressed this letter to you, Premier McNeil, as our agenda requests require an executive decision for budgetary allocations. This level of decision making is not within the purview of a civil servant no matter how senior they are or how knowledgeable about this policy area. Such a decision should require the support of the Minister responsible for the Department of Community Services, ultimately, however, we realize that this decision is one that lies with you. As the leader of this government, it is you, Premier McNeil, who is accountable to the requests of citizens of Nova Scotia.

Second, without a significant increase to income assistance rates with a goal to address the inadequacy of support that is provided, all clients of this program will continue to live in poverty. The toll poverty takes on clients overshadows all of the work that might come of the changes that are proposed. In other words, without an increase in income assistance rates, these changes will amount to tinkering with a system that has the effect of penalizing people receiving assistance and ensuring that nobody who must access this program has enough to provide for the basic needs of them and their family.

Therefore, we are once again asking you, as Premier of Nova Scotia: Will your 2018 Spring Budget allocate an increase to all Income Assistance rates?

There is no reason to once again reiterate that “announcements related to budget 2018-19 will be made when it is tabled in 2018.” As you know, budget announcements are regularly made outside of the tabling of the budget that have budgetary implications. People receiving income assistance deserve to know whether they will have the money needed to pay for things such as the rising cost of food, or the increasing NS Power rates. This is the time of year that many community members fear annual rental increase notices, and so perhaps you can reassure them that they will not get evicted for not being able to pay for rising rents. Average rentals have increased 17% since 2000, while the shelter amounts provided have been frozen.

This is just one illustration of how the system is designed to keep people at risk of homelessness.

As a counterpoint to what Mr. Grant wrote to signatories of the community agenda, the BC government recently announced an increase to its income assistance by $100 per month, as well as introducing a basic income pilot program, in what will be part of a series of legislative strategies to fight poverty. These are bold and progressive moves that signify what governments can do when the political will and foresight is there to support the needs of people living in poverty. The Premier of that province said this: “We’re raising the rates to support people and help them live in dignity.” The continued decision to not reasonably raise the rates ensures that people who are turning to your government as their last resort cannot live in dignity.

Under our income assistance program, a single person who is considered employable faces the lowest income supports; the NS government provides only 38.4% of what they need to reach the Market Basket Measure of low-income. This is one of the lowest in the country (BC’s rate was 38.3%). Since 2013, the Ontario government increased income supports from 6.7% to as much as 19% for some recipients. The recent review of the Ontario social assistance system recommended a further 22% increase over three years. Welfare incomes in Nova Scotia are well below what was provided in the 1990s. Premier McNeil, this is an unacceptable situation, one which we are confident you are well aware.

The number one determinant of health and food security is income security, and the ability to make decisions based on your own circumstances. Raising the rates of assistance is a progressive step to address the health needs of people who depend on assistance, and we are confident that you will make this happen in the 2018 budget.

Third, the government response lauded its consultation process to date as evidence that this was sufficient. The key for us is that the government’s form of consultation is not collaboration. The consultations held to date are owned by government, with those being consulted having no ownership over the outcomes of the consultation or even setting the terms of consultation. While some stakeholders could have engaged in the consultations, they are at a clear disadvantage both in resources and power to have any meaningful input. Let us also make clear that private meetings between government and community members should not be confused with collaboration or consultation. The meetings and what is discussed therein are not accountable to the people who receive income assistance. We are asking that you listen to the signatories of the community agenda and direct the Department of Community Services to engage in the collaborative process as outlined in the community agenda.

Moreover, none of this is what we asked for, which is a move to a collaborative partnership in the redesign of the income assistance program. Collaboration requires much more transparency with all relevant information released publicly. It would require the development of shared objectives that then guide the process as it unfolds.

The response letter actually highlights the problems with the government’s consultation to date. It mentions the standard household rate as an example of a positive change. The problem is that exactly what this change means has never been fully and publicly communicated with all of the relevant information needed to understand who exactly benefits. Communicating only in percentages is meaningless especially when not all clients will receive an increase. What would be meaningful is to communicate a plan to progressively increase income assistance rates by a dollar amount for everyone with a stated goal to have the amount of support reach the MBM low income line.

Similarly, the response letter highlights the change to earnings exemptions. While we see this as a step in the right direction, we see some of the movement shown on this issue as short sighted. The current low uptake of these exemptions is undoubtedly partially because of the high clawback. More importantly, many of those that you deem “employable” aren’t in a position to gain paid employment because of the lack of employment opportunities and supports that can meet their needs. Most importantly, the ability to seek employment opportunities, or to take up opportunities to increase employability, is severely hampered when clients are in daily survival mode to meet their basic needs. Instituting a complicated earnings exemption/clawback system will make it very difficult for clients to figure out their monthly budgets. Moreover, it is problematic that there are no earnings exemptions for those applying for assistance, requiring people to quit their job to prove need.

Income exemptions that should also be prioritized including the claw back of child support-why are we still waiting for the end to this cruel practice that discriminates against single parents wanting to provide for their children? Had the government adopted a human rights lens to build objectives for reform, as we are urging the government to do, this kind of practice would have already been flagged for change. We are asking that your government look to the recent Sparks decision from the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal as an indicator of the importance of Nova Scotia’s international human rights obligations – including the right to an adequate standard of living and social security in a non-discriminatory manner as per the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child – in reforming the income assistance program.

Fourth, the community agenda is a response to the urgency of need to address the income needs of the most vulnerable people in our province. We respectfully disagree with Mr. Grant’s assertion that we asked for a delay in the reform of this program. At no point did we ask the government to delay transformation. Further, we have been told that the government will be entering into another phase of consultation that was to begin in the New Year. We ask that this round not repeat the previous rounds, and instead involve working through the collaborative partnership which we have proposed.

We understand that your government has announced upcoming changes such as access to bus passes, standard household rate and the wage incentive structure. We are asking that the collaborative working group we have proposed be struck to review these and other changes, prior to them being rolled out in the timeline that has already been proposed by your government.

Fifth, the response letter makes a point to list initiatives already taken by government. We are well aware of these initiatives and yet still must come to you to demand better service and security for ourselves and our community. While we acknowledge that the $20 per month increase two years ago was the largest in Nova Scotia history, we stress that more needs to be done. This change does little to lessen the burden of those people who are living hundreds of dollars below any poverty line. This only shows how little priority has historically been placed to help this group of people. Premier McNeil, you have created the opportunity to change the course of this program.

The response letter highlighted the recent bus pass pilot program in HRM. While we see this as a positive step in many ways, we have heard from rural communities that they are being left out of any gains in this regard. Once again, we point out that the collaborative process we have proposed would provide vital insight in policy direction and innovative solutions for all Nova Scotians who depend on income assistance.

The response letter also outlines other changes such as extending the Career Seek Program.The information that has been publicly released shows that participation in this program continues to be low. This is another example of why relevant information needs to be shared in order for clients to understand what they can access, but more integrally, clients need to inform the shape of the programs and initiatives in order for those initiatives to empower them to make decisions about their own lives. The collaborative process, as is detailed in the Community Agenda for Social Assistance Adequacy and Reform, would address these concerns.

We are concerned about the government’s poverty reduction “blueprint”. We believe that, like the ESIA transformation, that without collaboration this plan falls short of being an accountable, achievable strategy to lift Nova Scotians out of poverty. The announcement cited in the response is not a blueprint, a blueprint would be a comprehensive action plan to achieve stated goals and objectives, based on evidence. Grant programs and project funding are not sufficient to support non-profit organizations, who require core-funding that recognizes the added-value that they have provided over decades of filling in the gaps in needs left by all levels of government, or to systematically reduce poverty. We fear that this process in another missed opportunity for true collaboration that can meaningfully enhance the lives of Nova Scotians.

The response letter states that client outcomes will be improved at the end of this transformation process. We are asking what information this claim is based on and what client outcomes are being evaluated in this claim? We are requesting that this information be made public, specifically to those people who are current clients of the ESIA program. Developing indicators of client outcomes must include clients in a collaborative process, one which we have proposed.

Lastly, the response letter did indicate that continued input is being sought. We are committed to collaborating with your government on the reform of the social assistance program and we ask that you direct the Department of Community Services to engage with the collaborative process as outlined in the Community Agenda for Social Assistance Adequacy and Reform. We commit to continuing to give input publicly and in full transparency

We are asking for you to meet with our group to discuss the implementation of our community agenda and look forward to hearing from you by Monday, February 19, 2018.

 

SIGNATORIES

Antigonish Women’s Resource Centre and Sexual Assault Services
Basic Income Guarantee – Nova Scotia
Benefit Reform Action Group
Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-NS
Community Advocates Network
CUPE NS
Dalhousie Legal Aid Service
Dartmouth Family Centre/Dartmouth North Community Food Centre
Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia
Every Woman Centre
Imove/Uniacke Center for Community Development
Maggie’s Place Family Resource Centre (Cumberland)
Martha Justice Ministry; Sisters of St. Martha, Antigonish
Nova Scotia Association of Black Social Workers
Nova Scotia College of Social Workers
Red Bear Healing Home Society
Schizophrenia Society of Nova Scotia
Solidarity Halifax
The Stepping Stone Association
Tri-County Women’s Centre
Women’s Place Resource Center, Annapolis Royal
Bill Carr, Actor, Writer, Speaker and Co-Founder of Arc -The Atlantic Restorative Company
Brenda Thompson, Author and Activist
Dr. Val Marie Johnson, Social Justice and Community Studies, Saint Mary’s University
Jackie Torrens, Documentarian, My Week on Welfare Megan MacBride, Social Worker
Michelle Mallette, Community Organizer and Anti-Poverty Activist
Sister Joan O’Keefe
Vince Calderhead, Halifax Human Rights Lawyer
Wayne McNaughton, Poverty Activist

See also:

 

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One Comment

  1. Honestly,the premier will never be concerned with raising the standard of living to a more reality-based survival rate ……….this will never affect him or his family so it will never be worth serious consideration………Not unless every vote carrying person who needs assistance cast their vote the same way………for a premier who will actually recognize the struggle faced by every person in this province who requires either short term or long term financial help from social services and call on their voting power to elicit change.

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