During the months of February and March of this year the Department of Community Services (DCS) organized First Voice sessions to offer an opportunity to give feedback on Social Assistance in different locations throughout Nova Scotia.
I personally attended one session on March 11th. As a part of this article, I plan to talk about the experience I had.
Not everybody who was invited showed up. From talking to others I know people did not attend for various reasons.
Some were scared to attend because in the past they developed trust issues with their caseworkers. I was told that if they went, the panel facilitators better be ready hear loud and angry voices. Their anger is caused by the caseworkers’ decisions regarding their Social Assistance income.
Also for this same reason, others were scared of being identified at the sessions.
Also keep in mind that some could not attend due to no money for transportation, and they had no bus tickets.
Those people who did attend, had the expectation of being heard, and for something to get done.
This includes those who lost Special Needs benefits like bus passes and special diets and wanted them reinstated. They were expecting an opportunity to talk to the higher-up policy people about how the loss of their Special Needs benefits was affecting them.
To find out more about these issues read my articles Why people on Income Assistance fear the Annual Review, Hoping for a miracle, and Op-Ed: Why aren’t politicians listening to people living in poverty?
The First Voices focus group sessions do show that the department wants to listen to its clients. However, the questions becomes “Is the Department of community Services really listening?”
The reality is that more and more people on income assistance are struggling, while the department moves slowly with its review. Some income assistance clients are suffering from anxiety because their special needs benefits have been suspended from their budgets for anywhere from one to two years or longer.
The length of time this review is taking is a real concern. Many I personally spoke with in the community, said they did not attend the focus groups because they strongly felt that attending was not going to solve the problems.
An immediate solution is what these income assistance clients were expecting from these focus groups. But the department said it was to create solutions for down the road when they do make changes.
From my personal experience of attending the focus group, I felt that three hours was not enough for us to talk about everything we had to address.
Nonetheless, my group did give them al ot of great feedback. Because one of the questions they had asked us was regarding employment, my focus at the session became the question why people on income assistance, especially those with disabilities and mental health issues, cannot be employed full time.
Also, I offered suggestions as to how the Social Assistance system could offer better work incentives.
For instance, let people who are on social assistance keep $500.00 of their employment income, instead of the current $150.00. After that that only 50% of the remainder of their income should gets deducted from their cheques.
Also, in the rare cases where currently you are allowed to keep $300.00 of your employment income, up that to $1000.00.
For that matter, income through self-employment should be treated the same.
One question which was asked during the focus group was “What makes a good caseworker?”
Different people had different opinions on this one. My view is that it is not the caseworker’s fault that they cannot be good caseworkers. It is the systematic problems of social assistance. Instead of guiding you, caseworkers have no choice but to o police you instead. The system needs to change to the point where their job description does not include so much policing.
One way to solve the whole big picture problems of social assistance is to change income assistance into a guaranteed income.
This way people can overcome the different barriers they face in society a lot easier, as well as not have trust issues with caseworkers.
I will say that it was good that the department at least took an interest in wanting to investigate how the systematic problems were affecting people on income assistance.
But the million dollar question is: what is the department going to do with that information they collected? Only time will tell.