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Report criticizes changes to income assistance rules

“More barriers, less money, more challenges,” say critics

by Robert Devet

Panelists at the CCPA press conference unhappy over changes to social assistance rules.  From left to right: Michael Cassady, Crystal Leffley, Shari Clarke and Anne Houstoun.  Photo Robert Devet
Panelists at the CCPA press conference unhappy over changes to social assistance rules. From left to right: Michael Cassady, Crystal Leffley, Shari Clarke and Anne Houstoun. Photo Robert Devet

Changes to social assistance rules that occurred in August 2011 have made life much more difficult for Nova Scotians living in poverty. This is the conclusion of a report by the Nova Scotia chapter of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).

The report was launched at a July 17 news conference and community event held at the Johanna B. Oosterveld Centre on Gottingen Street.

The changes affect recipients of so called “special needs” allowances, the 65% of people on social assistance who need more than just a personal allowance for food and shelter. Bus passes, dental work, special diets and telephones are all considered special needs.

One major change is that what is known as the “open-ended“ clause was repealed. This clause provided flexibility in terms of how special needs could be met. Its removal left people on social assistance with only a checklist of more narrowly defined items and services that are allowed.

At the same time workers in the field noted an overall tightening of the rules. The report points to more red tape, more complicated processes and increased denials of special needs requests, creating real hardship, especially for people with disabilities or suffering from chronic illnesses.

“The changes provide more barriers, less money and more challenges,” said Anne Houstoun, a physician at the North End Community Health Centre. “These are people's lives we are dealing with, not a factory where it is a widget and you have a checklist to make that part.”

The report mentions that a trip to the dentist is now only allowed in emergencies. Requests for preventative dental care are no longer granted. Special diets, capped at $150 since 1996, now more frequently require a letter from a dietician rather than a medical doctor.

“I feel like I am people's mother, I am writing notes for everybody,” said Houstoun, referring to the increased red tape she encounters when supporting her patients.

Removal of the open-ended clause also effectively took away the ability to appeal any denial of services that are not on the enumerated list.

Michael Cassady told the news conference how he filed a successful appeal prior to the 2011 changes because Community Services denied his request for financial support when his companion dog became ill.

Before the dog, Rosie, arrived in his life Cassady was suffering from a very serious depression.

“I was spending sixteen hours in bed. I wouldn't talk to anybody. I was just crying, my life was c a complete mess,” said Cassady. “After Rosie came into my life I started to get involved with people again, my life started to change.”

Cassady won the appeal. Community Services appealed to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, but lost again. The department promptly changed the rules to make sure nobody could ever make that same argument again.

Now Community Services has removed the ability to appeal cases like Cassady's altogether.

Shari Clarke was diagnosed with cancer in 2004. As a result she was forced to quit her full time job and apply for social assistance.

“I became part of a system that had total control on whether or how I was going to have basic needs met,” said Clarke. “Needs for safety, affordable housing, food, access to basic medical needs. To say that this was problematic is a gross understatement.”

“Illness should not have to be an automatic ticket to poverty,” said Clarke. “Not only is this system difficult to navigate, it is stressful, humiliating, and subject to very arbitrary decisions.”

In 2011 Community Services presented the changes as being necessary to increase consistency across the province. The Minister and high level bureaucrats talked about cutting down on services, such as medical marijuana, massage and gym memberships.

The report argues that the government's press release and overall communication increased stigmatization of social assistance recipients, by presenting certain “special needs” as being luxury items. In doing this the notion that people on social assistance do not deserve such things was reinforced, even though the items in question were approved by the department's own case workers and appeal boards.

“This change and the way it was presented actually perpetuates misconceptions, and that it very concerning. It has left income assistance recipients feeling very demoralized,” said Christine Saulnier, director of the Nova Scotia CCPA and co-author of the report.

The report emphasizes that reductions in special needs allowances need to be understood against the backdrop of a social assistance system that is altogether inadequate.

For instance, the report points out that one parent of two children receives a monthly personal allowance of $371, supposedly to cover not just food but all basic non-shelter needs. The cost of food alone for that same family is $563.

“It is such a critical issue [...] assistance is still absolutely below any measure of low income, it doesn't matter what measure you take. Basic needs is nowhere near what is required,” said Saulnier.

“So when you are denying special needs allowances to people who have illnesses or disabilities, this is the only way they possibly could offset these costs, and they are already having a deficit in their budget.”

The report is also critical of what the changes mean in terms of accountability, and how they were introduced.

“The rules were in the regulations. Regulations are legal [in nature], and in order to make changes cabinet has to be involved. Cabinet is made up of elected officials, there is some accountability there,” said Saulnier.

“As we move things [...] into a policy manual it means that the department of Community Services and the director in particular have more power.”

“This decision was [only] announced through a press release. [...] there was no consultation with anybody who would be directly affected by these changes, no consultation with providers in the community who know [...] what the impact would be,” said Saulnier.

We asked Community Services to respond to the report, but we have not yet received a reply. A Chronicle Herald article quotes the Minister of Community Services, Denise Peterson-Rafuse, as rejecting the findings of the report in strong terms.

She calls the report “totally wrong”, and argues that if things were truly that bad more people would have challenged the rule change and reporters would have known about it all along.


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Topics: Poverty
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Community Services response to this story

This response from Community Services arrived after the story was published:

We know how important special needs funding is for anyone on income assistance trying to make ends meet.

We understand that not everyone is happy with the changes that were made to the regulations for special needs program funding for income assistance recipients in 2011.

We know that more can be done and are continuing to work on programs and services that will help Nova Scotians most in need. Our work is ongoing. 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. We look forward to further dialogue with all of our stakeholders and Nova Scotians to determine how we can best work together to better help those most in need.

Fuck the NDP.

Seriously, who are the fucking "leftists" who support these neo-liberal scum-sucking shitheads?

Telling my story!

In Febuary of 2013, I had lots one of my special needs and the department of Community Services is bascially wanting me to chaseing the medcial system to be getting it back. Furthermore my caseworker tried to denie me my right to appeial the decision. Unforunially at the press conference I did not have any oppertuinty to talk about what has happened to in reguards to looseing my $66.00 high Calorie/High Protien diet. I was getting this special diet for impulse control disorder. The  fallowing will provide the short version ofthe long stroy of me fighting what has happened to me. In Febuary of 2013, it got cut off. Since then, I had written letters to the minister, Lanughed an appeial, (got deined through the apeial process), and written two letters to the minister fallowing the appeial process. I kept getting told by thoese who work in the system that the only way I can fight getting this $66.00 back into my allowence is with a medcial professional professional helping me fight this. My doctors are telling me they have not time to fallowing up with DCS Staff's expections reguarding this fight. I have even having to be chaseing the medcial system to get this back. Furthermore I felt that I was abused by certain actions taken by the DCS/ESIA staff. 

This can happen since there

This can happen since there are many changes which can impact also on long distance canada or other modification. These reports should be considered.

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