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Elections offer little hope for people on Income Assistance

Poverty activists disappointed in all three parties

by Robert Devet

Poverty activist Wayne MacNaughton is not impressed with any of the Nova Scotia parties when it comes to supporting people on income assistance.  Photo Robert Devet
Poverty activist Wayne MacNaughton is not impressed with any of the Nova Scotia parties when it comes to supporting people on income assistance. Photo Robert Devet

Most Nova Scotians who receive income assistance continue to live between 30% and 50% below the poverty line, the minimum level of income deemed adequate.

A recent report quotes a support worker as commenting: "I don't think that people who are not on ESIA [employment support and income assistance] even recognize or know how dreadful it is to try to survive on the food allowance."

Poverty activists say that responses by the three political parties indicate that the situation for people living on income assistance will not change for the better under a new provincial government, no matter what party wins.

These same poverty activists had high hopes when the NDP took power, but are now disappointed.

Over the last four years, working poor have benefited from raises in minimum wage, and fewer seniors live in poverty because of tax relief offered by the provincial government.

The poverty reduction credit for people on social assistance, and the affordable living tax credit for people who earn less than $30,000 also make a difference. Yet people receiving income assistance have not substantially benefited from these changes.

When the Community Society to End Poverty (CSEP) was offered an opportunity to pose a question at an election forum on social justice and women's rights issues held at St. Mary's University on September 19th, the group asked the three candidates about that gap between social assistance and the poverty line.

What is your plan to close that gap, and how long will it take?

The candidates filled their allotted three minutes speaking time, but not one of the candidates directly addressed the question.

Stella Lord, who asked the question on behalf of the CSEP, was so frustrated by the absence of a clear response that she re-posed the very same question towards the end of the forum, again to no avail.

Written responses by the parties to a similar CSEP question are equally vague. The Liberals “will look at” a prior strategy, and mention commitments to invest in education and public transportation. The Progressive Conservatives talk about the importance of early childhood education and lower energy costs. The NDP mostly talk about all the different things it has accomplished over the last four years.

"What this tells us is what activists have known all along, that there really isn't a political will in any quarter to do what is necessary to end or seriously reduce poverty," says Jeanne Fay, long-time anti-poverty activist and executive co-ordinator of Second Story Women Centre in Lunenburg.

"The NDP is doing slightly more than the other parties," says Fay, "but it is still so incremental that it is clear to me that there is very little political will. The party that many thought might bring some of that political will to government has not done it. It is that simple."

Wayne MacNaughton, member of the Community Advocates Network, shares this disappointment.  The Community Advocates Network is a group that includes people living on low-income and their allies in the fight to end poverty.

"I don't see any one party willing to do anything to address the poverty of people living on Income Assistance."

"There are good things that the NDP can boast about, most particularly the tax credits, in terms of people who are on income assistance. It's not enough, but it is a good thing," says MacNaughton. MacNaughton also points to the minimum wage increases as making a real difference for the working poor.

Yet MacNaughton believes that poverty has actually deepened over the last four years for people living on social assistance. He points to a $47 increase of the living allowance over the last five budgets as the only raise most social assistance recipients have seen. Neither shelter allowances nor special needs allowances were increased. 

"It works out to 1.5% or 2% increase each year, compare that to how any price has gone up, whether it is power, food, rent, anything. It is a ridiculously small amount, it hasn't kept pace. Even with the tax credits, it still falls short," says MacNaughton.

Another contentious issue are the new rules Community Services instituted in August 2011 for people who receive a special needs allowance as part of their financial support package. Bus passes, dental work, special diets and telephones are all considered special needs.

Many critics argue that these new rules limit supports available to people, increase red tape and make appeals difficult.

After strong criticism, the government relaxed the special needs rules this fall. But poverty activists feel that the rule changes should never have happened in the first place.

When it comes to these elections, MacNaughton has his mind made up.

"I don't see any one party willing to do anything to address the poverty of people living on Income Assistance. I plan on spoiling my ballot." 

Note by the author: I removed a dollar figure reference to the gap between cost of living versus income assistance from an earlier version of this article. It could not be verified.  See this report for more information.

Also note: Mothers did receive an increase in a nutritional allowance during pregnancy and up to twelve months after the birth.

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Topics: Poverty
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Spoiling ballot

Hi, good article, totally agree w/ MacNaughton. I have a suggestion for your ballot, do not spoil it as it is then not counted. If you VOID your ballot it is counted as another disenfranchised voter, much better to let them know your disgust through voiding.


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