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Poverty activists troubled by Minister's response to CCPA report

Minister on media offensive, claims report contains misinformation

by Robert Devet

Michael Cassady was one of the panellists at the July 17 CCPA report launch unhappy over changes to Income Assistance rules.  The response to the report by the Minister of Community Services has left many poverty activists angry and disappointed. Photo by Robert Devet
Michael Cassady was one of the panellists at the July 17 CCPA report launch unhappy over changes to Income Assistance rules. The response to the report by the Minister of Community Services has left many poverty activists angry and disappointed. Photo by Robert Devet

K'jipuktuk (Halifax) – A recently released report that criticizes changes to Income Assistance rules prompted what many poverty activists believe to be an overly negative response from Denise Peterson-Rafuse, the Minister of Community Services.

But today's response by the Minister to questions from the Halifax Media Co-op suggest there is a willingness to address a few of the issues raised in the report at least to some extent.

The report, launched on July 17 by the Nova Scotia chapter of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), argued that changes made two years ago to rules affecting people with special needs have caused real hardship for Nova Scotia's most marginalized.

Special needs are needs above and beyond those for food and shelter, things like transportation, special diets, medical care, and telephones.

In a Chronicle Herald article about the report launch the Minister is quoted as saying that “the report's conclusions are totally wrong” and that “the report contained misinformation.”

In the same article the minister points to a “lack of outcry from Nova Scotians” as evidence that all is well.

And in an interview with CBC's Information Morning the Minister said that the changes were put in place to stop people from receiving items such as hot tubs, gym memberships or medical marijuana.

“We were even seeing a move towards grow-ops for those individuals that were now receiving the medical marijuana,” Peterson-Rafuse told Information Morning.

This response does not sit well with Christine Saulnier, director of the Nova Scotia CCPA and co-author of the report. Saulnier, together with Stella Lord and Sara Wuite, the two other authors of the report, wrote a strongly-worded rebuttal in the Chronicle Herald.

“My expectations were not very high in terms of hearing a direct response on the specific recommendation but I did expect to hear something from the department [...] maybe that they were going to look at the report and eventually have a response,” Saulnier told the Halifax Media Co-op.

Wayne MacNaughton, poverty activist and a person who himself receives income assistance, helped draft a letter that was sent to the Minister on behalf of the Community Advocates Network, a grassroots coalition of low income advocates and their allies.

The letter argues that the 2011 changes have hurt the very poor, and claims that the Minister further stigmatized people on income assistance in her comments to the media.

MacNaughton challenges the notion that things are fine because there is no public outcry.

“Many community organizations are dependent on funding approved by Community Services to such an extent that it becomes problematic for them to speak out,”said MacNaughton.

And for clients, dependent on their caseworker, it is even more difficult to protest. “There are a lot of things a caseworker can do to make things difficult for people,”said MacNaughton. “People know that. That is well known throughout the community.”

MacNaughton was roundly offended by the Minister's talk about grow-ops, hot tubs and gym memberships.

“One of the things we had really hoped for with the change in government [after the election] was a minister and a government overall that would stand up for the [Income Assistance] program, and would say listen, we are doing the best we can to [cost-effectively] manage the system, but these people are vulnerable, they need help,” said MacNaughton.

“But what we got was a Minister trying to make people on income assistance somehow look bad, or evil, or criminal even. Using the term grow-op is a good example. Apparently they had one or two requests from people to grow their own [medical] marijuana,”said MacNaughton. “That's not a grow-op, a grow-op is a criminal thing.”

Adsum for Women and Children offers a range of services and support to women, children and female youth who need help because of homelessness. The organization posted a news release on its website that was supportive of the CCPA report and that called the minister's response “more than troubling.”

Megan Gray is the Social Work coordinator at Adsum House. She explained to the Halifax Media Co-op why Adsum was so concerned.

“What I found really difficult about [the Minister's] statements is that it suggests that she really doesn't get what it is like to live in poverty,”said Gray. “How difficult it is to go through the system of income assistance, how demoralizing it is, how difficult it is to reach your worker and to get things done.”

“The idea of disagreeing and arguing with your social worker can be scary for folks, because that is the person who controls your funding,”said Gray.

In an email response dated to July 24 Minister Peterson-Rafuse states that she is well aware of the importance of special needs funding and that she knows that not everybody is happy with the 2011 changes to the special needs program.

She points out that Community Services provides approximately $48 million in special needs funding and $50 million in Pharmacare coverage annually to income assistance recipients in Nova Scotia.

There appear to be a few modest new components in the Minister's response.

“DCS has already begun work to consider amending the Employment Support and Income Assistance (ESIA) regulations to allow essential medical treatments to be funded as special needs under certain circumstances,” wrote Peterson Rafuse.

“After consultation, the government has also decided there should be an appeal to an independent and qualified professional from decisions to deny special needs. Regulations to provide that appeal are expected soon.”


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Topics: Poverty
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After what happened to me back in Febuary, 2013.

I was galde to read in this report that changes are being looked at. However untill then I am getting $66.00 less a month on my cheeck because my High Calorie/high protien has been cut and Community Services has got me chaseing the Medcial System to even try and get it back. My regular doctor got frustrated and made it clear that he is not supporting the expectation of DCS staff, bcause as one part of story my doctor recieved phone from mycaseworker and possiblity other in the department questioning him on why he was recormending this diet for me in the first place. 

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