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Social Assistance in Nova Scotia Stagnates under the Dexter Government

Not enough to live on and no plans to change

by Robert Devet

Wayne Macnaughton and Sharon Murphy: Poverty Activists. [Photo: Robert Devet]
Wayne Macnaughton and Sharon Murphy: Poverty Activists. [Photo: Robert Devet]

K'jipuktuk (Halifax) - As fall turns to winter, it bears noting that recipients of income assistance in Nova Scotia receive much less money than necessary to meet basic needs of shelter and food. A Fast Facts report issued by the Nova Scotia chapter of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) shows what welfare recipients know already: that life for people on income assistance is a constant struggle to survive.

For instance, in 2010 income assistance provided to a single person would only amount to about $6,400 annually, while she would need $15,600 just to meet the most basic needs.

Similarly, a single parent with one child would fall short of meeting her needs by roughly $4,000.

People have to turn to other places to make do. A recent report issued by Food Banks Canada shows that welfare recipients represent almost 60% of all food bank users in Nova Scotia. The report concludes: "it is very difficult to be on social assistance, afford basic non-food necessities (housing, clothing, transportation, etc.) and also eat well."

Susan Lefort, long-time activist and advocate, puts it like this: "There is nothing more terrible than maintaining a system that forces people to beg. It is degrading. It rips people's self esteem apart."

Compounding matters, social assistance recipients who find a job are not allowed to keep much of what they earn. In fact they are lucky if they get to keep 30% of their monthly wages above $300.

This situation often leaves income assistance recipients in a troubling position; they don't receive enough to live on from social assistance, but can't begin to escape the poverty cycle by supplementing their income assistance with a salary.  

Michael Bradfield, economist, in a brief to the Legislature on behalf of the Face of Poverty Consultation, argues: "The 70 percent claw-back (on wages)... is 50 percent higher than the marginal tax rate for the wealthiest Canadians, and the claw-back generates a huge disincentive for someone with a chance to work part-time to get ahead. They incur extra expenses to work, yet lose most of the market income earned because of the claw-back."

In other words, the poorest of the poor are paying more tax than the richest of Nova Scotia.

Denise Peterson-Rafuse, the current Minister of Community Services, argues that the province cannot afford to do more: "We have invested over 300 million dollars to break the cycle of poverty since becoming government, and we can point to real results. Unlike most other departments our budget has increased. It's not easy, we are all under the constraint that we need to get the deficit down."

Wayne MacNaughton, a long-time poverty activist, tries to make ends meet on social assistance. He does not deny that good things have happened under this current NDP government. But he is not impressed with the Minister's response. "The question here is not are they doing better, the question is are they doing enough? As a single disabled individual I know I have lost purchasing power over the last years."

MacNaughton believes that the money is there, and that it's just a matter of political courage to get real action going. "You need to see how income is distributed and you need to use the tax system. The government is just feeding a neo-liberal monster. The government is not taking a stand when people argue that social programs are bad, and that social democracy is bad."

Many critics agree that there is something else going on here. This is not a matter of simply another government doing what it can for the poor while being constrained by the need to balance budgets and make ends meet. The poor are being kept intentionally poor.

According to the Food Banks Canada report, "[w]elfare programs are structured this way under the belief that too much help will create dependency and prevent recipients from, as they say, 'pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.' Care is taken to ensure that cash and housing benefits are always lower than the lowest-paid work."

But this notion that all income recipients will eventually land a job remains an illusion for many.

Paul O'Hara, social worker at the North End Community Health Centre explains. "Many people on income assistance face such challenges that employment for them is not a realistic end goal. We need to get completely away from the traditional approach, and we need to start thinking in terms of a guaranteed minimum income. As well, we think that Community Services should take a much more aggressive stance on educating the larger public.

"We need to stop individualizing and blaming people and understand the larger context in which poverty occurs. Poverty is a result of policies."

Which brings us to the larger set of issues raised by the department's critics: There is no comprehensive strategy to deal with poverty issues and no aggressive effort to educate the public on root causes of poverty. It's these larger issues that allow flawed social assistance policies to continue. And these larger issues strongly suggest that this government has no desire to fundamentally eradicate poverty.

The closest thing to a strategic political framework that pulls all policies together and talks about objectives over multiple years on the Community Services departmental web site is a 2009 document from the last days of the previous Rodney MacDonald government.

The Halifax Media Co-op asked minister Paterson-Rafuse whether a comprehensive strategy reflecting this government's overall approach existed at all. Paterson-Rafuse called the 2009 document "a piece of fluff without measurable milestones," yet she was not able to point to anything else taking its place. "I agree that our overall direction needs to be documented. I would like to see a report card approach," said Paterson-Rafuse.

Why the department would continue to prominently display "a piece of fluff" on its web site is another question.

Similarly, there is nothing to be found on the departmental website that sets out to educate Nova Scotians on root causes of poverty. Nothing to forcefully make the point that poverty is not an individual's fault at all. Nothing to counteract those critics who distinguish between "deserving" welfare recipients and "the lazy ones".

There is also nothing on the departmental website that mentions the real costs of poverty, which are in fact significantly more than the annual budget for the department of Community Services. These hidden costs include increased health care needs, lost productivity, and higher crime rates, and are costs that would be avoided if poverty were abolished.

A CCPA report estimates the true cost of poverty for Nova Scotia at $1.5 to $2.2 billion dollars per year. A powerful argument, and one that minister Paterson-Rafuse tells the Halifax Media Co-op, she "use[s] all the time when talking to the premier".

So why not use this business case when talking to Nova Scotia citizens? Why not make it the first thing people see when they go to the departmental website? The minister will file it under "advice": "That's a good point. It's really hard to change how people think," says Paterson-Rafuse.

There is no comprehensive strategy to eradicate poverty, no aggressive effort to battle stereotypes about poverty - but ongoing real hardship among the people who receive social assistance.

This is not what activists we talked to expected when the NDP took power. Paul O'Hara's response is typical of those who had higher hopes for this government: "Absolutely I expected the NDP to do better. They were quite vocal when in opposition, now they are silent."

After all, this is the same party that calls for the abolition of poverty in its constitution.

Instead, Nova Scotia's poor are getting more of the same. It's like a doctor who administers half the necessary antibiotics.

The patient will not die, but she will not get better either.


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1286 words




This is a good article that highlights the seriousness of economic poverty that income assistance recipients face in Nova Scotia. However, I would point out that the disincentive to work while receiving income assistance is much more punitive for recipients who are not considered disabled by the Department of Community Services.


Income assistance recipients who are not in “support employment” and are not considered disabled are only allowed to retain the first $150 of wages and then 70% of each dollar above that amount is clawed back.


If an income assistance recipient is considered disabled and is in “supported employment” (which is defined as: part of a vocational or employment plan supported by staff of the Department and/or community partners working with persons whose physical, mental or cognitive abilities may limit their ability to be financially self-sufficient) then the recipient or spouse of the recipient who is in supported employment is allowed to retain the first $300, and then 70% of each dollar above that amount is clawed back.  



Fiona Traynor

Community Legal Worker

Dalhousie Legal Aid Service


And this is why people with

And this is why people with disabilites who do not have the option of ever having any income from employment, even part-time, must be on a different system, not Employment Support and Income Assistance. The belief that we wil become dependent if given an amount that is adequate does not apply to the disabled. We are already completely dependant and will be until our death. Starving us does not encourage us to pull up our bootstraps. There are no bootstraps to be pulled up when you are unable to work due to disability.

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