I first went on income assistance in 1990. The amount of $223 is seared into my memory because it was such a shockingly small amount of money for an entire month. Before the switch from Family Benefits to Employment Support and Income Assistance in early 2000, the maximum amount I could receive was $714.
The shelter allowance was increased from $491 to $535. I doubt there is anyone in the greater Halifax area whose rent is only $535, so at best, this increase meant most of us are spending $44 less of our grocery money on rent.
There is a piece of paper that I discarded, much to my regret, many years ago, that would have proved that the Department of Community Services deducted $28 from the basic personal amount portion of our cheques when this change took place.
On that paper was listed a breakdown of the $714. The shelter allowance of $519 included two amounts: $491 for shelter expenses (rent, electricity, hot water, heat) and $28 for household items. When my caseworker handed me this budget sheet, I asked for clarification and he said the $28 was for things such as light bulbs and cleaning supplies.
At the time, I was living in a grungy rooming house for $350 a month so my cheque was only $573 (350+223). After paying rent, I had $223 for everything else, including phone, bus fare, quarters for laundry, toiletries, cleaning supplies, household items, clothing, and food. Since a phone was a necessity for me, I had only $196 a month as my phone bill was about $27.
The $28 was not intended to be spent on rent so if our rent was less than $491, it was not deducted but the amount of $491 would be less.
The DCS never should have included that $28 under shelter expenses because the amount for rent and utilities was, in fact, only $491. In other words, of the total shelter allowance of $519, $28 was yours to keep.
Currently, if any of the $535 is not spent on rent and utilities, it is deducted from our cheque because the entire amount of $535 is intended for rent and utilities. Basically, what the government did was change the name of the program, give us $44 more to hand over to our landlords, and cut the $28 for household items off our cheques. Replacing the $519 with $535 caused the $28 to disappear, which was a very underhanded thing to do.
As of October 2018, the basic personal amount for a single person on Employment Support and Income Assistance (ESIA) for reasons of disability is $535 for shelter expenses and $293 for everything else for a total of $828. That means that in three decades, the amount we received after rent was first $223, then $195, and is now $293.
Over the last 18 years, our cheques have increased sporadically—anywhere from four to twelve dollars, the highest increase of $20 occurring in 2016. As each increase was added, I noted, with great cynicism and rage, how much of the $28 was being reimbursed. I do not consider our cheques to have gone up by $70 in 18 years because $28 of that $70 is money we once had. They gradually gave us back the $28 and added another $42.
When the $195 got back up to $223 over a period of about ten years, I mentioned this to my caseworker during a home visit. I said, “That last increase finally put back the $28 they stole from us.” As I began to explain the math to him, he said he was well aware that $28 for household items was cut when ESIA was implemented.
Finally, after stewing about this for nearly two decades, I have found a way, via The Nova Scotia Advocate, to expose this rip-off. People need to know how very little our cheques have increased. If I had a cheque stub from 2000, it would read “BASIC REQUIREMENT 730.00”. Just because the basic cheque for a single person with disabilities increased to $730 in 2000 from $714 doesn’t mean we got more money. Our landlords got the increase and we were docked $28.
To summarize, the government has increased the rent amount by $44 over 30 years and the personal amount has increased by $42 in the last 18 years.