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Why I'm Supporting the NDP in this Election

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

WHY I’M SUPPORTING THE NDP IN THIS ELECTION

As a poverty reduction advocate and left social democrat, it’s been a struggle over the past four years to be a cheerleader for the NDP government, but despite some conflicting feelings about their record, now that the election is upon us I’m throwing my support behind the incumbents in perhaps the vain hope that they won’t be defeated but will be given a second term (in the best scenario as a minority government), to demonstrate what they could do if they listened to their base of support.

Let me explain why I’m working to get them re-elected.  If you take a social determinants of health approach as many poverty reduction advocates do, then we need to look at policies affecting income, social isolation/inclusion, food security, access to education, affordable housing, early childhood development, employment and working conditions.  We not only need to consider their four year record and compare that with what the other Parties did or didn’t do previously, but what each Party says it promises to do in the future.

In this short Blog I can’t do a full comparative analysis, so I’m going to concentrate on the NDP record.  Readers are invited to view the following websites for a comparison of what the parties say they will do in the future:  http://hpclearinghouse.net/blogs/ccep-ns/pages/home.aspx   http://nsfoodsecurity.org  and the CCPA-NS alternative provincial budget link at http://www.policyalternatives.ca/projects/nova-scotia-alternative-budget to see what the NDP government might have done better, and still could if they get re-elected.

Let’s start with children.  The government has developed the Schools Plus program and recently announced funding for four early learning and development hubs which should better address special needs and other child development issues, but unlike the Liberals it has not announced increases in funding for the nine family resource centres that provide learning opportunities and supports for both pre-school aged children and their parents, many of whom are on limited or low incomes. 

The NDP has increased child care spaces and subsidies, but it has done very little to ensure childcare workers are adequately compensated.  Nor has it figured out a way to ensure childcare is really affordable for most parents who need it.  Post-secondary student debt is too high and despite capping total debt, holding tuition increases to 3% or less, and doubling the needs-based grants, better ways must be found to reduce tuition and high student debt in the long term. If we want to keep young people and families in Nova Scotia, the government must address childcare and student debt issues.

As far as social inclusion is concerned, good child development programs will go a long way, but one of the most important issues we need to address is the treatment of all those with mental, intellectual or physical disabilities. The NDP government has developed what is probably the strongest mental health strategy in the country and has begun to roll it out; it needs a second term to ensure full implementation.  It is also in the process of doing more to ensure social inclusion for people with intellectual or severe physical -disabilities by reforming long term care and the Support for Persons with Disabilities program. The NDP has come up with a housing strategy, but in collaboration with community organizations, it must forge a clearer plan to ensure housing that is affordable not just for the middle class, but for those on low incomes and/or in need of supportive housing.  As I discuss below, if it remains in office, the NDP needs to do much more to help people with disabilities or chronic illnesses who must survive on very low income assistance benefits.

Here’s a few other things to consider about one of the most important determinants of health—employment and income.

The NDP has over its term in office increased the minimum wage to the low income cut-off level (LICO) for a single person living in Sydney and this is now pegged to the cost of living.  Nova Scotia now has one of the best minimum wage laws in the country. This is a remarkable accomplishment.  There is, however, room for significant improvements to labour standards legislation--especially the development of  better benefits and working conditions for low paid part time and contract workers (see the CCPA-NS report Labour Standards Reform in Nova Scotia February 2012)

In the course of this election the NDP has made much of the fact that according to Statistics Canada the poverty rate has declined since 2009 and that it’s the lowest it’s been in years.   

Poverty rates are affected by low rates of unemployment, the strength of the economy and strong income security policies (responsibilities of both federal and provincial governments).  There’s usually a lag between high unemployment and increases in poverty as the unemployed run out of savings or EI benefits.  Unemployment has been higher in Nova Scotia than in the rest of Canada for some time so the lower poverty rate may not be sustained in the long term unless employment improves soon. Recent financial and economic indicators suggest, however, that Nova Scotia is slowly turning a corner when it comes to financial sustainability, economic development and employment. 

We also have to remember that the world is just coming out of the worst recession since the 1930s and that the situation could have been much worse if the Dexter government had not granted financial assistance to Port Hawkesbury Paper on condition of maintaining jobs. And no, given the number of jobs at stake in Port Hawkesbury and the economic effects of closure, I don’t think simply relying on tax breaks or incentives for small business as the Liberals and Conservatives say they would do, would have done the trick —as important as this might be to ensure steady economic development in Nova Scotia.

Also, let’s also not forget that federal governments is partially responsible for economic policy, as they are for social policy.  It’s the federal government that has done little to follow up on it its economic action plan despite persistent levels of high unemployment and that is now making it increasingly difficult for the unemployed to access (increasingly limited) EI benefits. 

Statistics Canada also measures the depth of poverty (how far below the low income measure the poor are living). Here Nova Scotia is not doing so well—the depth of poverty has not improved very much at all. This can be influenced by people dropping out of the labour market due to longer than average periods of high unemployment (and this has certainly been the case in most provinces in Canada since the big recession began in 2008), and especially by high provincial income assistance caseloads due to long-term unemployment, disability, chronic illness, spousal breakup, or other issues whereby people ineligible for benefits such as OAS/GIS, EI, CPP or Workers Compensation find themselves with hardly any savings or income at all.  In these situations, people must often rely on provincial Income Assistance. With a relatively high income assistance caseload of about 28,000 individuals and families and welfare incomes between 50% and 70% of the low income cut-off (depending on whether you single and ‘employable’, a parent with dependent children, or are disabled), it is no wonder that the depth of poverty hasn’t changed very much. 

So what has the Nova Scotia government done about the depth of poverty?

Let’s first remember that since the federal government abolished the Canada Assistance Plan in 1995 and made substantial changes or cuts to social services funding, all provincial governments have been strapped to make up for the losses. Kudos, therefore to the Nova Scotia government which has exempted low income seniors in receipt of the federal Guaranteed Income Supplement (which used to maintain seniors’ incomes at or above the poverty line) from paying provincial tax, ensuring that the income of these seniors would not fall below the poverty line. The NDP government could have gone further with this and ensure that no individual or family living in poverty has to pay provincial income tax—but don’t expect this any time soon from the Liberals or the Conservatives (despite their anti tax stance). 

The NDP has also increased the age for free access to dental care for dependent children and capped generic drug prices —significant improvements for low income families who cannot afford dental care or don’t have access to private healthcare plans. The NDP (or any government for that matter) must do more to ensure all low income individuals families have better access to the kind of healthcare services other enjoy (e.g., pharmacare, vision care and dental care).  But what about the very poorest of the poor—people living on income assistance?

After the federal cuts, Liberal and Conservative governments did little to maintain income assistance at pre-1995 levels.  Indeed the Conservatives reduced income assistance for most recipients when they ‘reformed’ the system in 2001 and subsequently failed to maintain them in relation to the cost of living.  Over their four years in office, the NDP have provided very modest IA increases and introduced affordability and poverty reduction tax credits, pegging these and the Nova Scotia child benefit to the cost of living.  However, the increases have only barely compensated for large increases in the cost of food and shelter and because there was so much catch up required, all these measures combined have not adequately made up for the cuts and stagnation in welfare incomes since the mid-1990s . Worst of all, the NDP made changes to their ESIA special needs policies last year which have negatively impacted many people including those with chronic illnesses and disabilities.  After the impacts of the changes were exposed in a CCPA-NS report, Cornerstone Compromised (July, 2013), the government made some recent amendments to its policy, but it is unclear at this stage whether these will substantially improve the situation.  Whichever party wins the election in Nova Scotia on Tuesday, there’s still a lot of work to do to ensure that the poorest Nova Scotia families can live in dignity and do not have to survive on incomes between 30% and 50% below the poverty line. 

In my view, the special needs issue and the situation of the low income people in this province and this country generally highlights the serious limitations of economic, social and health policy in Canada and points to the need for an approach that takes the social determinants of health seriously in all policy development decisions.

Stella Lord


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