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My Life on Income Assistance

Not many housing choices are available for $535 per month

by Kendall Worth

Kendall Worth lives on $773 per month, plus some scattered income from selling the Street Feat newspaper.
Kendall Worth lives on $773 per month, plus some scattered income from selling the Street Feat newspaper.

My name is Kendall Worth, and I am writing this article from my personal experiences of being a resident of North End Dartmouth for the past 11 years of my life. This article will explain how Income Assistance works, and how my life, and particularly my housing situation, is affected by having to rely on it.

I am on Income Assistance (the slang name for Income Assistance is welfare) and I work part-time selling the Street Feat newspaper. This is how my sources of income work.  

Income Assistance is a source of income for people who, for whatever reason, cannot work. Some who live on this source of income can only work part-time hours at a job. Others who live on this source of income cannot work at all.

Some people who rely on living on this source of income have no other source of income to live on, and to meet their basic living expenses. For others, they actively work in the community; however, they are not making enough money to live on from their job, so in those cases Income Assistance gives these people a helping hand. [Editor's note: For some additional/alternate information and the experience of another person on Income Assistance, please see the comments below this article.]

This source of income is made available through the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services. Persons who are in need of this income can go to their local district office of the Department of Community Services, as long as they live in the province of Nova Scotia, and register.

People on Income Assistance are entitled to the amount of $535 per month to cover rent and all other shelter expenses, and a personal monthly allowance of $238.

This amount has to pay for heat, lights and hot water. Fortunately, most landlords do include heat and water in their price of what they charge the tenant for rent. However, most landlords do not include power in the price of what they charge for rent.  If the total amount of rent, plus all three of the utilities required for living, cost above and beyond the $535 limit, then the remainder has to come out of the Income Assistance client’s personal allowance.

Besides these allowances, there are certain other allowances available, if your department case worker approves them. These allowances include:

  • Special Diet allowances – Up to $150
  • Transportation Allowances – $70 for a Metro Transit bus pass
  • Telephone Allowances - $34.10

To access these allowances you need a doctor’s note, saying that you need those allowances for medical reasons. I can understand why the department requires a doctor’s note for the special diet allowances, because not every human being in our society needs special foods to maintain their health. However, policies of the Department of Community Services also require a doctor’s note saying that you need a phone for medical reasons for an Income Assistance client to get the telephone allowance. This does not make sense. Also, this policy makes it hard for people who are on Income Assistance to find work and to keep in contact with important people in their lives.

Accessing the transportation allowance is a bit easier, because along with those who need transportation for medical reasons, those Income Assistance clients who are working at least part-time can also access this allowance.    

How much can an Income Assistance client work?

For some people on Income Assistance, (the able-bodied recipients) the amount you are allowed to make is $150/month. Following that, 70% of the remainder of what you earn from working gets deducted from Income Assistance cheques.

For others, (persons with disabilities) it is $300 that you are allowed to make before 70% of the remainder of what you make gets deducted from Income Assistance cheques.

I was diagnosed with a learning disability, plus Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), back in my school days. I also have mental health issues. Having a learning disability plus mental health issues is never a good mix. When I became an adult and moved out of my parents’ home, I decided I wanted to find out more about why I had been in part-time special education/resource classes my whole life. I mean, I knew that for my whole life I had had learning disabilities and issues dealing with mental health. However, because I grew up in a rural area where I was a one-hour drive from the nearest town with all essential services, my only access to getting diagnosed while I was a kid was through a psychologist who used to come to my school to visit me.

When I was older and had moved to an area where transportation was easier for me to get to see these specialists, I got a family doctor in that area and asked for a referral to see a psychologist. After taking an adult version of the same test which I had taken as a kid, I was diagnosed with:

  • Impulse control disorder
  • Functioning disorder with intellectual difficulties

Also when I had worked at past jobs, which I had prior to selling Street Feat, I found working full-time stressful. I also found that I had a hard time understanding certain work-related tasks because of my learning disability and because my attention span was short.

I live in the North End of Dartmouth. This neighborhood is unsafe. A large percentage of residents living in the area are either living on Income Assistance, or they are living in poverty of some type.

This neighbourhood also has a high volume of drugs and drug-related problems.

This neighbourhood is one of the only neighbourhoods where rents are affordable for those living in poverty within Halifax Regional Municipality. When I was apartment-hunting in the HRM, both Halifax and Dartmouth, this was the neighbourhood where I could get approved for an affordable apartment. North End Dartmouth was never my first choice of where I wanted to live, when I first moved to the city.

The way others behave in my neighbourhood makes me fear for my safety. I live around neighbours who expect me to be someone I am not. I do not do drugs. Also, I do not spend my days just around my house all day and doing nothing. This is who my neighbours expect me to be.

My neighbours also talk to me like I cannot be living at my current address if I do not do drugs.

I remember when I first started apartment hunting in Halifax back in 2002, the cheapest I could find near Spring Garden Road, even then, was $650/month, for a bachelor apartment with nothing for utilities included in the rent: that is $115 above and beyond the $535 shelter allowance for those on Income Assistance, and someone on Income Assistance cannot afford this place due to the fact that none of the utilities are included in rent.

If I had to imagine a landlord’s attitude on this, this is what I think it would be:

'We are in the business of being landlords, and just like any businessman all we care about is making money. We do not care about those living in poverty; we do not care about the fact that persons with certain types of disabilities cannot work good-paying jobs. The Nova Scotia Tenancy Act says 'we as landlords are allowed to raise the rent as much as we want at least once a year. This give us leeway not to respect the fact that an Income Assistance client only gets $535 to cover shelter expenses, before what they pay for rent cuts into their other money.' We do not care if an Income Assistance client becomes homeless because of what we as landlords decide to raise the amount of rent to.'

It would be nice, especially for those living in poverty, if landlords did not have the above attitude, wouldn’t it?

Being on Income Assistance keeps you living in poverty, especially for those who have limited ability to someday achieve the goal to get off Income Assistance. Living on this source of income is a hard life in more ways than one. Living on this source of income limits your abilities to live in a safe neighbourhood, to live a simple day-to-day life, and to get meaningful employment. I would not recommend this source of income for anyone who does not need to be on it.    


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Some Needed Corrections

Kendall's first person account of his life on income assistance is great, and I know it takes courage to speak up as he has here.  There are some errors in the article, however, that I think need correcting.  This so that everyone can better understand Income Assistance (IA).  First IA is not just for those unable to work.  Many, if not most, IA clients are able and are required to actively seek gainful employment.  Those who fall into that category receive a maximum shelter allowance of $300 if they are single, not $535.  A family would receive $600 or $650, depending on family size.  In regards to the clawback, the exemption is $150 for everyone, except those that are in employment that fits within a govt program and has been approved by the caseworker, then the $300 may apply. As for a telephone, the amount covered is the actual amount that the client pays for BASIC phone service up to a maximum defined by Community Services.  I'm not sure, but I believe the max is $35.  Personnally I only get $20.79 for example.  On special needs generally, the department has been changing and tightening up criteria for accessing these needs, so as clients come up for annual review, some are experiencing cuts.  One more note on the shelter allowances - the $535 rate has remained unchanged since 2001, and the $300 rate since 2006.  The current NDP government hasn't raised shelter rates, or for that matter special needs allowances,at all.

Note from the NS Department of Community Services

Thank you for your comment. As the editor for this piece I contacted the Department of Community Services and received the following information from a communications advisor for the Department:

"1) The personal allowance for income assistance clients is $238/month.
2) Under certain criteria, a shelter allowance of up to $535 will be allowed for a single person.
3) Income Assistance recipients may be eligible for assistance to cover the basic service for a telephone, where a telephone is required for medical or personal safety reasons. Documentation of need from relevant professionals (medical or otherwise) must be provided by an applicant.

This government has invested millions to help low-income Nova Scotians better provide for themselves and their families. Last year's $18 million investment was the largest in Nova Scotia families and children in a decade. Another $6 million was added this year.
Income assistance personal allowance increased $9/month on July 1, 2012. This builds on last year's increase of $15/month."

'This government has invested millions....'

Sadly those millions don't amount to much in the pockets of IA recipients like Kendall or myself.  As I mentioned above, shelter allowances haveb't increased in years.  And while the govt seemed to be at least trying to move ahead in the 2011 budget, this year they only tried to stay the course, and didn't even do that well.  Applying a 1.8% increase to IA like they did this year ignores the real rent increases that everyone in private market housing are seeing, the rapidly rising price of electricity and rising grocery prices.  In the last few months for example, the price of peanut butter and canned baked beans (two staples of many IA recipient diets) have increased more than 25%.

The government pleads that they are doing all they can, but while putting through their anemic increase in IA and poverty tax credits (total 8.3 million) this year, they also continued implementing corporate tax cuts started by their Tory predecessors (16.3 million).  In the opinion of this citizen, reducing poverty is NOT one of their main priorities (in fact they have abandoned the NS Poverty Reduction Strategy.).

One only hopes that in their final, pre-election, budget next spring they get back in touch with the values they preached for so long in opposition. I'm certainly not optimistic about that possibility, however.

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