Sunday, 9 December 2018
featured Poverty

Alec Stratford: Nova Scotia’s income assistance changes lack empathy

Photo CBC news

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – The Department of Community Services (DCS) recently rolled out changes to the Income Assistance programs which aim to help low-income Nova Scotians.

Kelly Regan, Minister of Community Services, stated that these changes were brought in because:

We want all Nova Scotians to have the dignity, self-esteem, and self-confidence they need to move their lives forward. That’s why we’re changing the way we work with Nova Scotia’s most vulnerable people. We want to provide people living on low incomes the resources they need, and for those who can work, we want to provide the supports they need to join the workforce.”

Many advocates spoke out in favour of these changes noting that they “will lessen the burden of poverty.”

The editorial board of the Chronicle Herald also stated in this article:

“Long-needed government improvements to social assistance in Nova Scotia aren’t going to satisfy everyone — and nor should they — but, overall, the province seems to be both engaged and moving in the right direction when it comes to helping people in poverty.”

However, there are challenges with the changes that were brought forward.

The recent changes to the Income Assistance Program are embedded in a traditional worldview that poverty is largely the result of an individual deficit, that people need to work harder to join the workforce, and for those who can’t work, we feel sympathy for their suffering and we want to relieve the pain. The grounding principle in this worldview is that the free market is the best and most efficient way to alleviate poverty. Where it can’t the social welfare system will provide remedial services to relieve suffering.

This worldview and the policy that flows through it lacks a structural analysis of our broader social and economic context. This approach to poverty reduction is the equivalent of treating terminal cancer with a narcotic to relieve the pain and suffering, without removing the tumor.

Social service and health providers bear witness to the stories of Nova Scotians who find themselves in poverty daily. These Nova Scotians face circumstances that could happen to any of us – a workplace injury, struggles with mental illness, job loss etc… These situations are compounded when Canada’s racist, colonial and patriarchal biases are added to these stories. When we witness these stories, what stands out is a feeling of powerlessness.

As our partners at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-NS stated, poverty is not simply low income, poverty is felt. It is a social condition manifested in families’ struggles to afford the cost of housing, food, childcare, clothing, and transportation in the face of low wages, precarious work, racial and gender discrimination, a weak social safety net, inadequate public services and lack of affordable and available child and family services.

The policies moved forward by DCS lack this understanding of poverty. The changes made stem from the sympathy felt towards those “other people” who are less fortunate. Social work scholar Brené Brown refers to sympathy as lack of perspective taking where we just feel sorry for others. We don’t connect on a deeper level to their experience, we only react to what they feel. Sympathy drives disconnection and motivates us to take minimal steps to relieve suffering with the hope that things will get just better.

To move in the right direction of real engagement we need a structural analysis rooted in empathy with a real strategy to address these deeply felt issues. Brown describes empathy as a choice and a hard one that is rooted in perspective taking. It is when we see the world as others see it through a non-judgemental lens. It means being reflective of our own privileges and advantages in relation to others and acting to change our own perspective in solidarity with one another towards liberation from the oppressive structures.

Our country and province need to recognize that with a change in perspective we will find that we have the tools to create real change. A recent OECD study that looked at how much countries spend on social expenditures shows how Canada falls well below the OECD average – even lower than the United States. What can be found in this report is the realization that we have the financial capacity to put resources in places to truly tackle the issue of poverty.

To address poverty and move forward with real engagement as a province, we first need to focus on perspective taking and recognize that some of us have an advantage that is not given to others. It means challenging our current values to ensure that the stories of the oppressed are truly heard and that action is taken to change our current structures.

Nova Scotia and Canada as a whole continue to drift towards greater social and economic inequality. Wilkinson and Pickett write in The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better that where these divides occur there is eroded trust, increased anxiety and illness, and excessive consumption. This has lasting impacts on a range of social issues.

Many of our current political issues are tied to how we view poverty, from community safety and the justice system, to the mental health and health care systems and to the challenges that many teachers face in the classroom.

Together as Nova Scotians, we need to reflect on our own social location and empathetically engage with each other to move towards real engagement and real change.

Alec Stratford is the Executive Director / Registrar of the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers. The op-ed was originally published on the College website, and is re-posted here with Alec’s kind permission. 

 


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